Bristol Bay lawsuit attorneys seek $27.7 million

Posted: Wednesday, July 30, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Attorneys in the massive Bristol Bay salmon antitrust lawsuit want a combined $27.7 million in fees and expenses.

About 30 lawyers participated in the nearly four-month trial that ended May 23 when 12 jurors unanimously cleared the defendants of alleged price fixing.

Attorneys on both sides hope to get paid from a $40 million settlement fund being held in escrow for thousands of commercial fishermen who had accused dozens of U.S. and Japanese seafood companies of conspiring to cheat them on dockside payments for their catches during the early 1990s.

The fishermen's lawyers calculate they deserve $16.5 million of the settlement fund on grounds that they successfully collected the $40 million from several companies prior to or in the early days of the trial.

Defense lawyers for the 10 companies who fought to victory at trial want at least $11.2 million for beating a billion-dollar claim they said could have wiped out their seafood industry clients.

If Superior Court Judge Peter Michalski grants the two camps of lawyers their requested sums, it would mean an average payment of $2,740 to each of the 4,500 current and past commercial fishermen involved in the class action.

Courthouse haggling over the money could take months to sort out.

Jack Keane, a veteran Bristol Bay fisherman who lives in Anchorage, said he's not surprised the lawyers might take much of the money.

''The cynics kind of said, 'Well, that's the way it would go anyways,''' he said. ''God, it's a messy legal thing.''

Both sides say that even if the judge awards the payments, they still will not be fully compensated for the thousands of hours of time and the millions of dollars in costs expended on the case, which pulled together fishermen, fish processors, importers, lawyers, economists and interpreters from Oslo to Tokyo.

In recent weeks, lawyers have sent bills to the Anchorage court seeking at least partial reimbursement. In a typical filing, Richard Donovan and other lawyers for Japanese salmon importer Okaya list $3.4 million in fees at up to $400 per hour; more than $171,000 for interpreters and translations; nearly $162,000 for travel; and about $61,500 for copies at 10 to 15 cents a page.

The defendant companies also are seeking reimbursement for more than $1.8 million in shared legal costs, right down to $3,318 worth of bottled water for people in the courtroom during the trial.

In court papers filed this month, the fishermen's lawyers said they took the case purely on the chance of collecting about a third of any winnings. They said they have not been paid anything yet for years of work leading up to the trial and millions in spending out of their own pockets.

They are asking for 30 percent of the $40 million settlement fund as legal fees, or $12 million, plus about $4.5 million in costs.

Looking to be conciliatory, the fishermen's lawyers said they're writing off some costs. For instance, two nationally known antitrust attorneys, Steve Susman of Houston, Texas, and Fred Furth of San Francisco, said they did not charge for using their private jets, though Susman said he would seek reimbursement for the equivalent of coach fare on a commercial airline. Furth said that although he often stayed in the Crow's Nest suites near the top of the Hotel Captain Cook, accommodations that run from $625 to $1,500 a night, he was charging only for the cost of a regular room.

The fishermen's lawyers also said they were not charging for their time and costs during most of the trial, during which they operated out of makeshift offices on a rented floor of the Captain Cook, just across Fourth Avenue from the Boney Courthouse.

Jeff Feldman, an Anchorage attorney for defendant Trident Seafoods, noted that defense lawyers are not looking to put more money in their own pockets.

''We've already been paid,'' he said. ''It's the defendants themselves, the processors and importers, who are seeking partial reimbursement for the legal fees they had to pay.''

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