As an environmental lawyer with close ties to Louisiana’s ever-growing community of local activists fighting on the same issues, I’ve been sounding the alarm about the state’s so-called Cancer Alley — the web of massive petrochemical plants lining the lower Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to below New Orleans — for years. The small river towns between those two cities —...
Most lawyers would be intimidated by taking on the world’s most powerful and secretive company, the giant Exxon-Mobil Corporation. But Stuart H. Smith isn’t like most attorneys. With his expert knowledge about the kind of radioactive pollution caused by oil-and-natural-gas production, Smith knew how to show before a jury how the global oil giant had for years systematically dumped radioactive pipe – and in the process poisoned its unknowing blue-collar workforce – on one man’s property just outside Smith native city, New Orleans. And he and his partners made an audacious request: That the jury come back with a 10-digit verdict against Exxon-Mobil. But after hearing the case, Smith’s team indeed won a $1.056 billion judgment. Although later reduced somewhat by an appeals judge, it remains a record penalty for this type of case.
Stuart H. Smith has been one of America’s top environmental lawyers for more than a quarter-century, taking on not just Exxon-Mobil but Chevron, BP, and other large corporations that had harmed their neighbors and their workers with hazardous pollution. His success is reflected in the title of his autobiography: Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America – a book that award-winning documentarians Josh and Rebecca Tickell called “a true-to-life, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat, hard-hitting David vs. Goliath thriller..”
Even metastatic kidney cancer a few years ago didn’t stop Smith. Despite a grim prognosis, he beat back the disease with help from some of the world’s best doctors, resumed his career by joining the New Orleans-based Cooper Law Firm, and is tackling an array of complex cases on behalf of everyday people. Currently, he and his partners are taking on Big Pharma on behalf of babies born to opioid abuse, suing federal contractors tied to radioactive contamination of a middle school in southern Ohio, and tackling two other big radiation pollution cases in Missouri and Illinois.
Smith has also been lead counsel on more than 100 oil pollution cases, which focus primarily on damages caused by the wastewater and sludges oil companies discharge into the environment. His first big case was groundbreaking – a lawsuit against the giant Chevron Corp. on behalf of workers at a Mississippi disposal yard who were exposed and in some cases sickened by exposure to radioactive debris on oil pipes. The case – which resulted in a favorable settlement for his clients – brought much needed national attention to the problems known within the oil and gas industry as technologically enhanced radioactive material (TERM), or naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).
On April 21, 2010, Smith was flying his jet back to New Orleans when he saw the black plume of smoke from BP’s badly damaged and leaking Deepwater Horizon rig, out in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next few years, he threw himself into seeking justice for the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of its worst environmental disaster. He worked with a team of experts that uncovered evidence that government and BP officials were downplaying the extent and the damage of the spill and published it on his popular environmental blog. As a lawyer, he fought for the interest of the Gulf’s commercial fishermen and numerous other clients.