In 1996, Eugene Stearns and his Miami-based law firm joined a team of lawyers representing thousands of gas station owners around the country who claimed they’d been ripped off by oil giant Exxon.
Just before Stearns and his firm signed on as lead trial counsel with the team, which included Pertnoy Solowsky & Allen of Miami, an internal memo written by another plaintiffs attorney, Virginia solo practitioner Gerald Bowen, referred to the giant federal class action case as “a sinking ship.”
Stearns found when he came on the case that thousands of pages of documents were still unread with only three months left in the allowed discovery period, according to court documents. No experts had been hired. Most alarming, Stearns wrote, was that the legal strategy was deeply flawed for proving that Exxon had fraudulently operated a discount-for-cash program that allegedly overcharged 11,000 gas station owners around the country for gasoline.
“There were key moments when the prosecution of this meritorious claim had been so bungled it would have taken little for Exxon to have prevailed,” Stearns wrote in an August filing for fees in U.S. District Court in Miami.
Under the original fee agreement reached in 1996 among the plaintiffs lawyers, Pertnoy Solowsky would get 47 percent of the awarded attorney fees, Bowen 25 percent and Stearns Weaver 25 percent. The widow of famed New York City trial lawyer Roy Grutman, who was the original trial counsel in the case before he had to withdraw due to illness, would get 3 percent.
Obviously, the ship didn’t sink. Someone had wrested victory from the brink of defeat and led the plaintiffs to a field of black gold. And after years of fighting the oil giant, the plaintiffs attorneys have turned on each other, claiming credit for the victory and seeking a bigger piece of an estimated $440 million in fees.