There’s a lot of things about dealing with BP regarding the Gulf oil spill and its aftermath, which has cast its pall over the region for the last four-and-a-half years, that make you want to pull your hair out. But nothing has been as agonizing as the company’s bitter treatment of thousands of clean-up workers who took to the Gulf in an effort to rescue birds and turtles, and to scoop up or burn as much of BP’s 5 million barrels of crude oil as possible. Many of these workers began suffering symptoms — such as nausea or severe headaches — right after their initial expose to the oil slick. Indeed, my first trip into court involving BP in 2010 was arguing successfully for stronger worker protections, including protective gear.
Many were worried about the long-term impact, and in too many cases their fears have been confirmed. And a lot of these boat captains, fishermen and coastal residents either lack or have minimal health coverage; their ongoing medical needs that are almost certainly the after-effect of their exposure to the toxins both in oil and in the dispersant, Corexit, that was sprayed in copious amounts to make the oil disappear. In 2012, I — along with others — argued that the proposed legal settlement with BP did not go nearly far enough to cover the health concerns of the people of the Gulf. But BP prevailed on the court that its proposed deal would be fair.
Two years later, we now know this wasn’t the case:
BP Plc, having pledged billions of dollars for damages caused by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, won’t have to make payouts any time soon to more than 95 percent of the workers hurt while cleaning up the mess.
If the workers want money for their physical injuries, they’ll need to sue the company, a federal judge in New Orleans ruled yesterday, saying they no longer qualify for automatic compensation under the company’s medical-benefits settlement.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier expressed frustration that the vast majority of an estimated 20,000 individuals injured from exposure to crude oil and dispersants during the spill weren’t covered by a deal he thought would end such litigation.
It gets worse, though. Barbier told this court his research showed that a slight wording change in the final agreement meant that the settlement did not accomplish everything he believed it would do back in 2012. In essence, thousands of workers who missed a cutoff date in that year will have go through the arduous process of filing a lawsuit to receive any compensation.
Barbier told BP’s lawyers their interpretation was “troubling” and wasn’t what he was originally told when he signed off on the medical-benefits settlement, which is part of BP’s larger $9.7 billion deal to resolve most private spill- damage claims.
“It is rather strange that the court would approve a settlement,” Barbier said, repeating himself from the hearing, “that really doesn’t settle thousands of claims and requires them to file another lawsuit. I mean, it doesn’t sound like much of a settlement.”
Strange, perhaps. But it’s also very much the long game that BP is playing right now. Resisting the temptation to settle big and put this fiasco behind it, the British oil giant has decided to chart a very different course indeed. BP is determined to fight tooth and nail over every dime of the settlement, seeking to re-invent new interpretations and to challenge both the citizens making claims and the those involved in the claims process.
And this strategy was decided when crude oil prices were close to historically highs. Now, with the price of crude plummeting like a giant stone, you can bet your bottom dollar that BP will fight the settlement even harder. And it’s the everyday citizen, the one who bravely volunteered to work to make the Gulf cleaner and better, who is caught in the middle. His fight for justice may take years. But the most important thing is not to give up — because that is exactly what BP is counting on.
Read more about Judge Barbier’s ruling on medical claims here: http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2014/11/30/348492.htm
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