BP Spill Victims Can Seek Punitive Damages Under Maritime Law, Judge Says


By Margaret Cronin Fisk and Allen Johnson Jr. – Aug 26, 2011 11:01 PM CT

Businesses and individuals suing BP Plc (BP/) and other companies involved in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill won a federal judge’s approval to seek punitive damages in pursuing claims of economic and environmental losses.

BP and the other companies claimed the U.S. Oil Pollution Act prevented plaintiffs from collecting punitive damages. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans ruled yesterday that the statute is “silent as to the availability of punitive damages” and plaintiffs can pursue such claims under maritime law.

“OPA does not displace general maritime law claims for those plaintiffs who would have been able to bring such claims prior to OPA’s enactment,” Barbier said. “These plaintiffs assert plausible claims for punitive damages against responsible and non-responsible parties.”

Barbier also allowed boat owners to go forward with lawsuits under federal oil pollution law contending their vessels were damaged while working to clean up the spill. The judge also let companies proceed with claims over revenue lost because of the government moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that was imposed after the spill.

Barbier dismissed economic loss claims by individuals and businesses under state law, while allowing the plaintiffs to pursue these suits under federal maritime and environmental laws.

100,000 Claims

The Macondo well blowout and the explosion that followed killed 11 workers and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The accident and spill led to hundreds of lawsuits against London-based BP and its partners and contractors. The lawsuits over economic losses and personal injuries have been combined before Barbier.

‘There are in excess of 100,000 claims” in the complaint affected by yesterday’s ruling, the judge said.

Barbier ruled yesterday only on non-governmental economic loss and property-damage claims. The ruling doesn’t cover claims brought by state, local and tribal governments.

The lawsuits also name as defendants Transocean Ltd. (RIG), the Switzerland-based owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded; Houston-based Halliburton Co. (HAL), which was responsible for cementing services; and Cameron International Corp. (CAM), which provided blowout prevention equipment. BP’s minority partners in the well, Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC) and Mitsui & Co.’s Moex Offshore LLC unit, were also sued.

Barbier has scheduled a nonjury trial for February 2012 to determine fault.

‘All Major Points’

“We’re extremely pleased with the ruling,” Steve Herman, a plaintiffs’ attorney, said in a phone interview. “The court agreed with us on all major points.”

Dismissal of state law issues brought by individuals and businesses “may have some minor effects on some claims but it’s not like they’re getting kicked out of court,” Herman said. “They still have claims under federal law.”

Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, and Beverly Stafford, a Halliburton spokeswoman, declined to comment on yesterday’s ruling. Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen and Guy Cantwell, a Transocean spokesman, had no immediate comment.

David J. Beck, an attorney for Houston-based Cameron, didn’t immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment yesterday. A Moex spokesman said the company is reviewing the decision.

Barbier dismissed maritime claims against Anadarko, based in The Woodlands, Texas, and Moex in the non-governmental suits. They remain in the lawsuits under the federal Oil Pollution Act.

The case is In Re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).