Five years and about $11 billion later, Lafayette lawyer Patrick Juneau is nearly finished with administering BP's oil spill settlement program, which compensated victims of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
But he has already begun working on his next assignment: overseeing the largest recall in U.S. history, the almost $1.3 billion settlement tied to Takata's faulty air bag inflaters that are prone to rupture and have killed at least 13 people in the U.S.
Juneau, a former president of the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel, has mediated high-profile cases, including liability litigation against the manufacturers of the heartburn drug Propulsid and the painkiller Vioxx and lawsuits against Toyota over the sudden acceleration of its vehicles.
The soon-to-be 80-year-old Juneau was tapped to administer the Takata settlement program earlier this year. His work will largely involve raising awareness to encourage more of the tens of millions of consumers who own the recalled cars to take them to the shop for repairs.
The recall affects more than 60 million faulty air bags nationwide. After more than three years, roughly 75 percent of Takata’s defective air bags still have to be replaced, class plaintiffs' counsel said in a federal court filing in May, citing federal data.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has described it as "the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history."
In his new role, which is scheduled to last four years, Juneau is in charge of administering settlements by six automakers, deals that all are similar but operate separately.
In addition to handling outreach, the settlement also will reimburse owners for car rentals and other costs incurred in connection with having the work done on their vehicles, like towing expenses or lost wages. Depending on how it goes, the owners may also be eligible for up to $500 from residual funds left over in the program.
"There's no textbook to give you what the road map is, so we're going to make it," Juneau said. "We're going to design and implement the road map."
At this point, six manufacturers are involved in Juneau's effort: Honda, which agreed to pay $605 million; Toyota, $278.5 million; BMW, $131 million; Nissan, $97.7 million; Mazda, $75.8 million; and Subaru, $68.3 million.
The first air bag recall, by Honda in 2008, affected only a few thousand cars. But since then, the numbers have spiked. By late 2015, the number of recalled Takata air bags had ballooned to nearly 61 million involving 19 carmakers.
In late 2014, consumers sued Takata Corp., the air bag supplier, as well as several automakers, including Honda and Toyota, seeking class-action status. They alleged that their cars were equipped with faulty air bags, which relied on an ammonium nitrate-based propellant to release gas immediately after a crash to inflate an air bag cushion.
Due to a defect, some of the air bags were prone to rupture, causing metal shrapnel to be propelled toward the vehicle's occupants.
For Juneau, the two high-profile settlements he has been called upon to administer are markedly different.
The BP settlement, which was brokered in 2012, was intended to avoid piecemeal litigation by setting up a way to resolve hundreds of thousands of claims for economic damages stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 men and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and onto wetlands and beaches.
The arrangement called for treating all claimants who lived in a given area along the Gulf Coast similarly if they could show a loss of income after the disaster, regardless of the reason for the loss.
Since it opened in 2012, Juneau's BP claims facility has processed more than 402,500 claims, federal court records show. Through June 30, the program had issued eligibility notices affirming the validity of more than 175,100 claims, with payment offers totaling nearly $11.7 billion.
By then, only about 2,300 claims were still waiting to be reviewed, a figure that's since been whittled down and will likely be wrapped up by the end of the year, Juneau said.
Now, Juneau's main task will be developing "innovative and well-funded" ways of reaching car owners to convey the message that they need to have their air bags replaced — an ongoing effort that has stalled.
To do so, Juneau likely will use a range of techniques, such as direct mail, email, phone calls and social media, as well as multimedia campaigns involving traditional media such as radio, television, print and the internet.
Federal regulators acknowledge that Juneau has his work cut out for him.
"The size of these recalls, ages of vehicles affected, nature of the defect, and associated communications and outreach challenges, as well as remedy part and alternative part supply challenges, lends unprecedented complexity to the recall and remedy process," National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials said in a May filing in federal court in Miami, which is handling the multidistrict litigation.
"Given the potential severity of the harm to vehicle occupants when an inflater rupture occurs and the widespread exposure across a large vehicle population, the ongoing risk of harm presented by the defective Takata air bag inflaters is extraordinary."
For the automakers, the settlement is aimed at getting as many of the faulty air bags off the road as possible, and compensating consumers for the short-term costs of dealing with the problem, with a $500 incentive being dangled to help get more people through the door.
"A lot of these manufacturers have sent five, six, 10, multiple letters," Juneau said, describing the current effort as having "hit a plateau."
Terms of the deal, which came together after more than two years of negotiations, are pending court approval. Juneau plans to handle much of the work from Lafayette.
A big task
The magnitude of the work is not lost on Juneau.
"It can't get any more serious or big-time to the public to get these air bags replaced because we already had deaths, we already had injuries, and the risk is still there to other people, so we want to get that cured," he said.
To develop the outreach program, Juneau will rely on experts to advise him on what technology to use to reach the largest audience. Social media are expected to play a leading part.
Approaching his 80th birthday, Juneau said, "I'm getting a serious education in a short period of time." But he realizes that the effort may stall if it doesn't involve the latest technology.
"Whatever technology's out there today, we're going to try to avail ourselves of that," he said, "because without that, you're not going to get a lift in what's already been done, and if you don't do that, the risk still exists out there."
In fact, legal experts say that the recall could eventually be a case study for measuring the success of using social media to reach tens of millions of people who are impacted by the recall.
Unlike some class-action settlements, this one is starting with an advantage by at least having a list of people to work from, drawn from the carmakers, said Edward Sherman, a Tulane University law professor who specializes in complex litigation.
"The state of social media has grown so much than even five years ago, that this may be a good test case for showing the utility of social media for getting out notice," he said.
However, if some consumers haven't been moved to action by the notices they've already received about the air bags' risks, they may not be now, either, Sherman said.
"It's kind of a sign of the times, that people are so busy, and smaller sums of money may not develop an interest in spending the time to pursue (the air bags' replacement), but it would also seem to be a very strange lack of regard for the danger," he added.
With the BP settlement winding down this year, Juneau's staff is expected to be slimmed down to only a handful to handle lingering administrative issues that crop up in the next few months.
Juneau, who often talks wistfully about kicking back with a beer on his swing in Krotz Springs, a small town in St. Landry Parish, said that after a career of being at the center of high-profile litigation, this latest assignment may very well be it for him.
But if that's the case, he can look back on "the biggest case in American legal history with the BP matter," followed by "the biggest recall in American history, involving the entire automotive industry, which has a significant impact on the public," he said.
"That's one hell of a good way to close your career," he said with a laugh. "If you can do both of those things, I'm going to feel pretty good."