Fireboats try to extinguish the blaze on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig south of Venice after an explosion on Wednesday, April 21, 2010. The explosion and fire killed 11 workers on the rig. (Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archives)

James Varney, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune By James Varney, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on February 07, 2014 at 2:07 PM, updated February 07, 2014 at 2:46 PM

The deeper one ventures into the legal thicket surrounding the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the more gnarled the underbrush becomes. In at least one instance, a prominent Louisiana legal family is involved at myriad levels.

The family tree in question begins with U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval. Duval presided over the criminal trial and conviction of former BP engineer Kurt Mix last year, but last month, citing information they were given after the trial, Mix’s lawyers filed papers asking Duval to recuse himself.

The brunt of their motion is based on the fact Duval and one of his law clerks – his wife, Janet Daley – became plaintiffs in a lawsuit against BP prior to Mix’s day in court. At a pretrial meeting, Judge Duval had disclosed to all parties that he owned a Grand Isle beach house and was thus theoretically eligible for damages, but he was not a plaintiff at that time.

Judge Duval never disclosed his change in status, according to Mix’s lawyers. In addition, the lawsuit he and his wife joined also seeks punitive damages, which would bring it dangerously close to the very ground covered during Mix’s trial.

Mix’s lawyers said they searched in vain for a parallel.

“The defense has been unable to identify any case that looks remotely like this: namely, one where the district judge and his lead law clerk are active litigants in a highly-publicized civil case worth billions of dollars that is unfolding in the courtroom literally next door and, through their legal representatives in that civil case, are actually advocating in favor of the very same arguments that the prosecutors have been making for over a year against the criminal defendant over whose case the district judge is presiding and on whose case the law clerk is working,” they wrote (emphasis in the original).

The parties agreed to go forward after Judge Duval’s initial disclosure, and federal prosecutors argue the subsequent moves do not poison the well. But the Duval family’s potential financial gains from BP litigation are not confined to the judge.

Mix’s recusal motion hints at this but does not name names. For instance, the motion notes only, “the attorneys who are personally representing the Court and Law Clerk with respect to their lawsuits against BP are family members of the court.” Elsewhere, the motion speaks only of “family members” and “close personal friends.”

All of those vague references, however, are familiar to players in the Macondo blowout litigation.

For example, the judge’s son, David Duval, told members of court-appointed investigator Louis Freeh’s staff that he got a job with the Deepwater Horizon claims office after Judge Duval recommended him over lunch with Claims Administrator Patrick Juneau, according to court documents. Juneau recalled the circumstances differently, but in any event David Duval was employed by the claims office until his resignation last October.

Meanwhile, Judge Duval’s brother, C. Berwick Duval II, and his wife, Judge Duval’s sister-in-law Alexis Duval, are also closely tied to BP lawsuits. Duval, Funderburk, the law firm that also employs Judge Duval’s nephew, Stanwood R. Duval, had filed 29 lawsuits against BP as of last November. The firm also represents Terrebonne Parish and other public entities in BP litigation.

Alexis Duval became a principal in the Bourgeois Bennett accounting firm last year. That firm has actively solicited BP work, as CPA reports are a critical piece of showing reduced income in the year following the spill.

Judge Duval’s office said he would have no comment, given matters are still pending before his court. Neither C. Berwick Duval nor his wife could be reached for comment. The couple gave sworn statements to Freeh’s team sometime before Dec. 10, court documents show, and then on Dec. 20 both took a one-year sabbatical for personal reasons, according to representatives of Duval, Funderburk and Bourgeois Bennett. The law firm said Berwick Duval is currently in the Bahamas.

It remains unclear what impact, if any, all of this will have on the Mix case. His lawyers also have filed motions to vacate the guilty verdict, and a hearing on those is scheduled for next month. Judge Duval has indicated he will rule on the recusal motion after reviewing the briefs filed by Mix’s team and the Justice Department.

Consequently, at the moment Judge Duval is still slated to sentence Mix on March 26 to up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Certainly nothing that has emerged undercuts the fact BP lied about various elements of the Deepwater Horizon spill, and nothing touches on the question of whether BP will eventually be hit with punitive damages that could dramatically increase the money BP must pay.

But with so many Duval fingers in this BP pie, it’s enough to make a cynical person wonder if justice has much to do with it all.


James Varney can be reached at jvarney@nola.com.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This