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Attorney Camilo Salas behind the Mississippi River Oil Spill Lawsuit

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News Orleans, LAJust 30 hours after a huge oil spill at the Port of New Orleans on the Mississippi River, lawyer Camilo Salas was preparing a class action complaint on behalf of Stephen Garbarick, a jazz musician from the French Quarter, and taxi cab driver Bernard Attridge. They are the lead plaintiffs and just two of the thousands in similar circumstances in a position to claim damages after a collision between a tanker and an oil barge early on the morning of July 23rd.

"I sat down at eight o'clock Wednesday evening, and six hours later I had the whole brief written," says Salas.

The next morning, 38 minutes after the courthouse opened, the documents were in the hands of the courthouse clerk and stamped document #08-4007. The first class action complaint related to one of the most serious oil spills on the Mississippi River was on the record.

"It is important to be first," says Salas, "if you want any say in what happens."

Meanwhile, a 60-mile long stretch of the river is covered with an oily sheen and remains closed to traffic. Ships pushing through the contaminated water could drag the oil further up river and their wake would drive even more oil up onto the Mississippi shoreline.

Cruise ships and hundreds of other vessels that use the Mississippi to transport goods inland are unable to move. The Port of New Orleans is losing an estimated $270 million a day. Hotels, restaurants and shops along the river and dozens of other commercial endeavors connected to shipping are also experiencing steep financial losses.

An experienced maritime lawyer with a master's degree in environmental law and
a master's degree in public health, longtime New Orleans attorney Camilo Salas may be the perfect lawyer to steer the lawsuit against the five companies that played a part in the accident.

"This accident happened right downtown, right in front of the city. The smell is overwhelming," says Salas.

The usual hordes of passengers that disembark in New Orleans are absent from the streets, and the usual stream of cash that Salas's clients, Garabick and Attridge, depend upon is as stalled as the river itself. They are also breathing in the noxious gases in the air that hangs over the Big Easy.

It is still unclear why the 600-foot Tintomara rammed the barge Mel Oliver spilling 500 thousand gallons of heavy number six oil into the river. The suit names as defendants, Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., the managers and operators of the Tintomara, a Houston based barge operator, American Commercial Lines, as well as the New Orleans tugboat company DRD Towing, and the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association that provided an apprentice pilot to the Tintomara and instead of master pilot as the law requires.

While this spill is not as large as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, it could prove more costly in many ways. At the time the Valdez accident occurred, maritime law did not allow plaintiffs to claim economic damages. The Oil Pollution Act passed by congress in 1995 has changed that.

"There is no such limit under the Oil Pollution Act," says Salas. "I have already been contacted by a lot of people wanting me to represent them."

There could be claims against the vessels and the Pilots Association by the government agencies for the estimated 300 million dollar clean up bill. There may be businesses, like the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans that choose to file their own separate lawsuits, Salas speculates. The city of New Orleans is also concerned about damage to the wetlands around the port that function as part of the levy system that holds back water in severe storms. It could consider a suit.

There may be so many court actions as a result of the accident that Salas admits the vessels operators and owners may not have enough money to cover it all. "This is not like the Exxon Valdez, where Exxon could afford to pay. It will be the insurance companies that will have to pay."

Within a few days, Salas will begin the process of asking the courts to certify the class action. At his own home in the Garden City area, some 20 blocks from the accident, Salas says the air is thick with the choking smell of diesel fuel. "We thought first, this would be cleaned up in a few days, but that is not what is going to happen," he says.

As for maritime lawyer Camilo Salas, he expects to be at the helm of one of the biggest oil spill suits in history for a long, long time.

Camilo Salas graduated from Tulane University (J.D.1981) and earned a masters in Energy/Environmental Law (LL.D.1991) and a Masters in Environmental Health Sciences (M.S.P.H. 1994).

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