Stuart H. Smith (born September 15, 1960) is a practicing plaintiff attorney licensed in Louisiana. He is a founding partner of the New Orleans-based law firm Smith Stag, LLC. The firm’s practice is concentrated in the fields of environmental law and toxic torts. Smith has practiced law for nearly 25 years and is recognized internationally as a crusader against major oil companies and other polluters for damages associated with radioactive oilfield waste – which is known within the oil and gas industry as technologically enhanced radioactive material (TERM) or naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).
Mr. 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. As an industry practice, oil companies pump oily wastewaters into holding pits and ponds during production processes. That wastewater and sludge has leached into groundwater and contaminated aquifers and other drinking water sources in oil-producing states –– like Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi –– posing a grave health risk to the general public, and children in particular. Mr. Smith’s litigation experience includes a lawsuit against Ashland Oil for contaminating the Lee aquifer, once one of the largest sources of fresh water for residents in eastern Kentucky. He also sued Chevron Corporation for damages associated with that company’s contamination of the groundwater in the rural town of Brookhaven, Mississippi. His firm also represents clients injured by chemicals and defective drugs.
Mr. Smith is currently representing commercial fishermen, whose livelihoods have been devastated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Smith is lead counsel in the case of George Barisich, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, and United Commercial Fisherman’s Association, Inc., individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Versus BP, P.L.C.; BP American Production Company; BP Exploration & Production Inc.; Transocean, LTD.; Anadarko E&P Company LP; Anadarko Petroleum Corporation; MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC; Cameron International Corporation; Halliburton Energy Services, Inc.; and Halliburton Company.
Mr. Smith is one of the few attorneys in the United States who has focused his practice almost entirely on finding remedies for victims of oil company pollution over the course of two decades.
Smith is well known for his role as lead counsel in an oilfield radiation case that resulted in a verdict of $1.056 billion against ExxonMobil for contaminating land it leased from the Grefer family in Harvey, Louisiana –– and attempting to cover it up. The Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, in its 61-page decision not to rehear the case, stated that ExxonMobil exhibited “callous, calculated, despicable and reprehensible conduct.” The opinion rebuked ExxonMobil’s behavior on two levels: worker safety and property damage. “The fact that Exxon showed no regard for worker safety,” the court stated, “certainly demonstrates that it had even less concern for the property damage that it caused, thus further demonstrating the morally culpable nature of its conduct.” The most insidious part of the Grefer case is that it appears Exxon knew about the radioactive material and did nothing to alert either the Grefers or its contractor. The court stated that from June 1986 to March 1987, “Exxon officials intentionally withheld information,” and that the company “knew the [radioactive] scale posed a direct danger to the physical health of those workers.” Oilfield waste, or TERM, is primarily composed of radium, a highly radioactive chemical element. Exposure to radium is known to cause a variety of devastating illnesses, including cancer. Radium’s impact on the human body is particularly acute because it is chemically similar to calcium –– and as such is frequently absorbed by bones after entering the body.
Early life and career
Stuart Smith was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Frederick, a businessman, and Judy, who held a number of jobs to provide for her three sons. His mother and father divorced when Smith was 7.
He attended parochial school in Holy Name Parish. He endured hardship at an early age, losing his father at 21 to congenital heart disease and then shortly thereafter his brother, Whitney, who was hit by a car while on spring break in Destin, Florida.
Smith dropped out of school at 15, earning his GED years later. He went on to earn his B.S. from Louisiana State University and his J.D. from Loyola University New Orleans in 1986.
In 1994, Smith teamed with Andrew Sacks to form Sacks & Smith, a New Orleans-based plaintiff law firm. Smith and Michael Stag began working together in 1997 and later established the firm SmithStag, focusing on plaintiff-oriented, environmental and toxic tort cases.
Taking on Big Oil
In 1992, Mr. Smith was the first plaintiff’s attorney to take an oil company to trial for damages caused by radioactive oilfield waste. Street v. Chevron pitted the owners of a mom-and-pop pipeyard located in rural southeastern Mississippi against a multinational oil conglomerate. Allegedly, for years, Chevron had sent radioactive oilfield pipe to Street, Inc., for cleaning –– without informing the owners that the pipe contained radioactive material. Investigators from the state Division of Radiological Health found radiation on the Street property 500 times the natural level. The suit charged that 38 people, not only the owners and workers but also children and other family members, had “suffered physical and psychological harm because of their exposure to low levels of radiation and that Shell and Chevron should have warned them about the ‘inherent dangers.’” The suit sought $35 million in damages. Shell settled early in the process, but Chevron vigorously defended the case during six months of trial. The oil giant ultimately settled the case for an undisclosed amount of money in what remains one of the longest-running jury trials in Mississippi history.
Radioactive oilfield waste is a radium-based substance commonly referred to as technologically enhanced radioactive materials (TERM). Other acronyms associated with these toxic materials are NORM, naturally occurring radioactive materials and TENORM, technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials. TERM, a by-product of oil and gas exploration and production, consists primarily of radium-226 and radium-228. The health hazards associated with radium, a decay product of uranium, have been well-documented since the early 1900s in such reporting as the Radium Dial Painters or Radium Girls who suffered painful bone conditions, fractures, anemia and in some cases death as a result of their exposure to radium. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that TERM accumulates on the inside of oilfield tubing and other production equipment as radioactive scale and sludge, posing a threat to workers, the general public and the environment. Radium-226, the major component of TERM, has a half-life of 1,622 years so the hazard persists over long periods of time. The oil industry would not publicly admit to the presence of TERM in its production processes until 1986 –– some 30 years after scientists first observed it on oilfield equipment. Experts believe that TERM, generated by petroleum production and other industrial processes like phosphate mining and fertilizer manufacturing, may be the largest source of “avoidable radiation exposure in the United States.” Naturally occurring radioactive materials, as its name suggests, exist naturally in trace amounts in the earth’s crust, rocks and soil. Those naturally occurring substances become highly toxic when they are enhanced, or concentrated, during industrial processes, like oil and gas production. Consequently, U.S. oilfields –– from Alaska to Florida –– are contaminated with highly radioactive material.
When an oil company drills into a rock formation to tap an oil reservoir, there is saltwater trapped inside the rock with the oil. It’s a geological phenomenon that always holds true: where there is oil there is saltwater. During extraction, oil companies pump the saltwater, or brine, up to the surface with the oil, where the two fluids are separated during production processes. The saltwater, which becomes wastewater, has radioactive material in it. The naturally occurring radium goes from being relatively harmless to being a grave health hazard when it accumulates as a concentrated scale on the inside of oilfield piping or is dumped into open “holding ponds” with the brine, a common industry practice.
The story of oilfield radiation made headlines in America’s newspaper of record. On December 3, 1990, a New York Times headline declared: “Radiation Danger Found in Oilfields Across the Nation.” The article begins: “Radium from the earth’s crust has been brought to the surface in decades of oil drilling, causing widespread radioactive contamination of the nation’s oilfields.”
In addition to the successful prosecution of TERM cases, Mr. Smith has represented dozens of clients injured by toxic chemicals or defective products. He has helped individuals and their families recover compensation for personal injuries arising from commercial vessel, cruise ship and offshore accidents. Through close relationships with law firms in other states, Mr. Smith has litigated nationwide from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas and Mississippi to Kentucky, Alabama and Florida.
Mr. Smith’s areas of expertise include: Mass Torts, Class Actions, Environmental Law, Toxic Torts, Maritime Law and Personal Injury.
Stuart Smith has been interviewed and his cases have been covered by a variety of media outlets, including CNN’s Andersen Cooper 360, BBC World News, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Lawyers Weekly USA, The Times-Picayune, The Baton Rouge Advocate, The Hill, The Associated Press, Bloomberg, National Public Radio, Radio America, and Washington Post Radio.
Smith is a major donor to the Democratic Party and is deeply involved with local politics as an adviser and community coordinator. He has worked for years to preserve the French Quarter in his native New Orleans. Described by friends and colleagues as a “larger than life” individual, Smith is an avid yachtsman, instrument-rated pilot and scuba diver. He lives in New Orleans and Miami Beach.