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Gadfly Texas lawyer takes on BP again

May 27, 2010, 5:59 pm

HOUSTON (Reuters)
By Kristen Hays

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Dealing with the worst oil disaster in U.S. history could be BP Plc's biggest nightmare, and lawyer Brent Coon intends to make it haunt them for a very long time.

The 50-year-old Southeast Texan plays guitar in a rock n' roll band, hangs out with Playboy playmates, dresses in blue-collar hip clothes and sports sunglasses on top of his spiky blond locks.

He is also BP's nemesis in the Texas courts -- and he says they know it.

"They hate my guts, but other than that, we're doing fine," he told the Reuters Global Energy Summit this week.

BP declined comment. But Coon spearheaded Texas civil litigation against BP in the aftermath of the 2005 explosion at the company's Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured at least 180 more.

Now he represents a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded and sank last month while wrapping up work on a BP well, and fishermen and others affected by the spill are knocking. Eleven workers died, and BP faces intense scrutiny and pressure to fix a gushing well that threatens much of the seafood- and tourism-heavy Gulf Coast.

"Every day economic impact is going to be worse. It's just a matter of sitting here to see how bad it's going to be," Coon said.

The Texas City disaster cost the company more than $3 billion, about two-thirds of that to settle lawsuits. Estimates of BP's liability for the spill run twice that or more.

'HEY THERE, BABY DOLL!'

While Coon went up against stuffy corporate lawyers in the BP cases, he is as unstuffy as they come. The son of an electrician, he grew up in small Southeast Texas towns where political correctness is virtually unknown.

He expected to bypass college, play in his band and enter a trade like his father. But his mother, who died when he was in his early 20s, wanted him to be a lawyer.

He started in 1986 at a small firm in Port Arthur, known for refineries and the hometown of Janis Joplin. He found his calling with asbestos cases and other industrial environmental issues. He said he would rather slit his wrists than represent Big Oil.

"I represented the guys who were the dads I grew up around. I didn't have to wear a three-piece suit -- I could meet clients in union halls, wearing my jeans and boots," he said.

In 2001 he founded Brent Coon & Associates in Beaumont, once a bastion of plaintiff-friendly courts. Coon stuck with environmental and personal injury cases, largely in smaller state courts with blue-collar jury pools.

"He's managed to help a lot of people and he brings a lot of energy to his clients," said Mark Lanier, a Houston plaintiffs lawyer who led the lawsuit charge against Merck & Co  regarding its lethal painkiller Vioxx.

Outside of court, Coon greets women with "Hey there, baby doll!" He's got a winged guitar tattoo next to his left bicep that says "ROCK AND ROLL." He also runs a golf course complex that he built, and rides his motorcycles: two choppers and a Harley-Davidson.

NO APOLOGIES

He believes BP had him followed when the Texas City litigation was ongoing, seeking something damaging about his character. But Coon makes no apologies for his lifestyle.

"I'm in a rock band, I'm single, I run around with playmates and stuff," he said with a shrug.

But get him talking about BP, and his tanned face quickly turns serious.

"With BP, we have this long history of reckless behavior," he said. "BP is no better today than they were five years ago."

Coon's firm handled about 200 of 4,000 Texas City claims, including that of Eva Rowe, the most high-profile. Her parents, James and Linda Rowe, were among the 15 who died.

But his firm took on the legwork for most cases, such as depositions of top BP executives -- including a hard-won telephone deposition of former BP CEO John Browne.

Rowe's case also allowed Coon to release reams of damaging internal BP documents that revealed questionable safety practices. She settled on the eve of trial only when BP relented on that point.

Her settlement also required public disclosure that as part of resolving her case, BP would donate $32 million to various schools and hospitals. All other financial settlements remained confidential.

BP's North America arm that oversees its U.S. operations also pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act and paid a $50 million fine for failures that led to the blast.

Ronnie Krist, a Southeast Texas plaintiffs lawyer who switched sides to battle Coon on BP's behalf in Texas City cases, said Coon was an unpredictable and worthy opponent.

Krist said Coon's style appeals to southeast Texas juries, but not so much elsewhere.

"Brent does a very thorough job of preparing his cases and understands the mechanical aspects," Krist said. "He understood that damn explosion backward and forward."

(Reporting by Kristen Hays, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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