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Ga. town recovering from refinery blast bristles at lawyers' ads

By The Associated Press
02.15.08

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. — Crews are still working to douse the flames from a sugar refinery explosion, still trying to reach the last of the victims’ bodies, yet already the out-of-town lawyers are swooping in.

“If you or a loved one was injured in this explosion, you may have valuable legal rights,” reads a come-on from one New York-based firm that snapped up the domain name www.sugarrefineryexplosion.com.

The plant’s owners have lawyers, a Texas attorney notes in a newspaper ad, adding: “Shouldn’t you?”

While such solicitations are nothing new following major disasters, many residents in this town of 5,000 and beyond have been disgusted by the audacity of lawyers trying to round up clients before the blaze at the refinery — which continued to burn yesterday, a week after the blast — could be extinguished and the workers’ remains fully recovered.

“It’s not in the best taste,” said Tim Holbrook, owner of the Deli Mart, a popular eatery in downtown Port Wentworth. “The grieving process has just begun, and I think it’s very unthoughtful.”

The blaze at the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery has been so persistent, officials were forced to call in a specialized firefighting team to subdue the thick masses of molten sugar still bubbling in 80-foot silos at temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees.

As of yesterday, the fire had killed at least eight people and left another person missing. Savannah Fire Capt. Todd Heil said crews found another body Feb. 13 in the second-floor break room. Authorities believe the last missing person is in a section of the same room, which is still littered with wreckage.

Even with the search continuing and the smoke still rising, trial lawyers began trolling for plaintiffs.

Mark & Associates, a law firm with offices in New York and Boston, grabbed the www.sugarrefineryexplosion.com domain and outfitted the site with details of the blast, links to news updates and a form where victims can share their information with the firm’s attorneys.

Dallas lawyer Jeffrey D. Slakter’s full-page ad in the Feb. 13 Savannah Morning News included details of Imperial’s financial status — net sales of more than $875 million.

The site and the ad incorporated jarring images of the explosion’s aftermath.

Neither firm returned repeated calls from the Associated Press on Feb. 13. By late afternoon, the Web site had been taken down.

Word of the solicitations quickly swept through Georgia’s legal community, all the way to the state Capitol.

“I’m a big believer in the First Amendment, but [it doesn’t require] good taste — and that’s what some lawyers do not have,” state Rep. Wendell Willard, an Atlanta attorney, said by phone after taking the well of the state House Feb. 13 to condemn the ads. “It’s unseemly, and it gives us all a bad name.”

Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears offered her own warning: “There are strict rules about lawyer solicitation,” she told reporters at the State Capitol on Feb. 13. “Any lawyer that might be doing that, they need to be careful.”

The State Bar of Georgia, which oversees the state’s 40,000 attorneys, bans lawyers from in-person solicitation and restricts them from writing letters to victims within 30 days of a tragedy or an accident. But it has no such rules over advertisements.

“I would hope that somebody in the bar could extend to the members of the community that you don’t have to rush into selecting a lawyer, that there’s plenty of time to make that analysis,” said William Smith, the bar’s general counsel. “They are very significant decisions and do not need to be rushed.”

Despite the warnings, State Bar officials and others have heard reports of lawyers attempting to contact injured workers’ families at a burn clinic in Augusta, Ga.

“These slicksters know that when people are emotional train wrecks, then they’re vulnerable to hard-sell pitches,” wrote Tom Barton, editorial page editor of the Morning News, whose newspaper carried Slakter’s ad. “They also know that blue-collar workers and their families may not be savvy negotiators when it comes to striking a deal and signing on the bottom line.”

Imperial Sugar is based in Sugar Land, Texas.


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