Legal Issues Surrounding Gulf Coast Oil Spill Get More Complicated

Dozens of class action lawsuits have already been filed in the Gulf Coast region (including Louisiana, Florida and Texas) against the companies who may hold some responsibility for the oil spill disaster-BP first, followed by Transocean, Cameron, and Halliburton, among others.

BP and Transocean are dealing with wrongful death lawsuits from families of the 11 victims who died in the explosion as well as lawsuits from those injured. Survivors of individuals who have died due to the negligence of someone else can recover a multitude of damages in a wrongful death suit, such as medical expenses, burial expenses, compensation for pain and suffering and loss of consortium, and even punitive damages in some cases.

Those who have lost revenue in the aftermath of the blast such as fisherman, restaurants, charter boat companies, even homeowners could also bring class action suits. Even municipalities may sue for lost tax revenue. In addition, shipping companies could sue if traffic along the Mississippi river gets disrupted. The trail of liability these companies will most likely face is long and complex because the effects of the disaster are far reaching and anyone adversely affected may be entitled to compensation from those deemed responsible.

Cleanup itself creates new liability issues because the chemicals used to try to disperse the oil are dangerous to the fisherman who are trying to help. If these volunteers are injured the companies may face additional personal injury lawsuits in the future.

It is not unusual for an oil spill like this one to create a huge legal mess. Following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, there were 17 categories of lawsuits filed against Exxon, with each representing thousands of aggrieved parties who ended up collecting $507 million in compensation plus the same amount in punitive damages. This oil spill could have even greater legal implications since the population of the Gulf Coast is 10 to 20 times greater than the population of the Alaskan coast with a maritime economy that is much bigger.

Some questions exist as to how much BP, as the major player involved, will be forced to pay for the economic repurcussions of the spill. The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) caps some of BP’s liabilities at $75 million. This number is so low that some Democrats in Congress have proposed retroactively raising the cap to $10 billion. According to analysts, the actual liability will lie somewhere in between, possibly around $3 billion, a fraction of the estimated cleanup cost of up to $20 billion. Following the Exxon Valdez spill, cases trying to collect higher punitive damages were argued for years, going as high as the Supreme Court only to be unsuccessful. In the end, maritime law proved to be fairly stingy in providing for costs beyond hard financial damages. With this legal precedent set, it will be an uphill battle for plaintiffs to collect more in an effort to be made whole this time around. However, given the far reaching economic implications of the spill and increased number of people affected, anything is possible.

In any event, BP will probably not even pay all of the damages awarded. While BP has pledged to pay for the cost of cleanup and legitimate damage claims they will most likely try to offset their cost by going after the other companies involved in the construction and operation of the Deepwater Horizon rig. This can be accomplished through contribution lawsuits, which are claims brought by a defendant (like BP) to a lawsuit for money damages owed to a plaintiff. Typically one defendant will sue other defendants or third parties and claim that they are required to “contribute” to help pay the cost of damages owed to the plaintiff.

To navigate these complexities, a qualified attorney is necessary. With so many different defendants and a wide variety of legal recourses available for both side to utilize, legal representation will be key to the financial awards people receive. Further, the wide variety of plaintiff classes and issues will make it important each individual looking to make a claim is represented properly. With damages that some people might not even be aware they can claim, hiring a lawyer capable of making the best case for you is an important choice to be very careful with. Doing so not only ensures no claims are missed but also that adequate provisions like venue, class and statute of limitations are followed.

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