Flurry of legal claims filed on one-year anniversary of Gulf oil spill


A flurry of legal claims were filed on the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion Wednesday, as people harmed by the oil spill rushed to put their names in for a trial scheduled for next February, companies involved in the disaster filed suit against each other, and the state of Louisiana expanded its claim as legal deadlines loomed.

About 70,000 people filed claims in an obscure maritime law proceeding brought by rig owner Transocean Ltd. by the end of the day Wednesday using a form that also signed them up for the broader litigation against BP, the leaseholder on the well, and other companies that were involved. That number is expected to increase as claims that have been mailed or hand-delivered to the federal courthouse at 500 Poydras Street are entered into the system, but some claims could also get knocked out if they are found to have been improperly filed.

Scores of lawsuits representing multiple parties were also filed on top of the 350 suits that were in place at the time of a litigation status conference in late March.

Wednesday’s deadline was something of a moment of truth between the dueling litigation and mediator Kenneth Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which is using $20 billion in BP money to settle claims outside of the court process.

Stephen Herman, co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs, claimed victory. “I think it certainly validates the litigation effort. I also think that it confirms the sentiment out there that Feinberg and the GCCF haven’t really done a great job of giving people what they thought they were entitled to,” Herman said.

Feinberg did not return a phone call seeking comment on the volume of claims filed in the oil spill litigation and whether it reflects upon the success of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, but 505,613 claims have been filed with his claims process, and 119,124 final claims have been paid.

Wednesday was the deadline for people to sign up to participate in a special maritime proceeding brought by Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, to try to limit its financial liability to the $27 million value of the sunken rig.

While people actually have several years to file claims under maritime law or the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, plaintiff attorneys made the case that filing now in the Transocean proceeding would give people the maximum possibilities to preserve their rights and could give them access to punitive damages, should they ultimately be awarded. A special three-page form approved by the court allowed people to make claims in the Transocean proceeding and the broader litigation against BP, its partners and contractors on the well without hiring a lawyer or paying a filing fee.

While some criticized the form as a ploy for the committee of plaintiff attorneys steering the litigation to sign up clients, law professors, consumer advocates and the Alabama attorney general advised people that filing the form was a smart move.

But in a blow to the litigation, the state of Florida did not file a claim in the Transocean proceeding, saying that it was wary of getting roped into paying attorneys fees to the plaintiff steering committee, and that it planned to file a claim directly with BP this summer under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

“Joining that litigation, we would then be responsible for paying for those attorneys for a large percentage of the recovery. We believe that the claims process will be a better result,” said Jennifer Krell Davis, spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Mississippi and Louisiana also did not file claims in the Transocean limitation of liability proceeding, but Alabama and Minnesota did.

Parishes, cities and towns across south Louisiana also filed, including Iberia, Jefferson, Lafourche, Livingston, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Mary, St. Tammany and Terrebonne parishes, as well as the United Houma nation and the Pointe Au Chien tribe.

While Louisiana did not file a claim to participate in the limitation of liability proceeding against Transocean, the state expanded its lawsuit against the parties to the disaster because of concerns about the limits of state law.

Louisiana is the only state on the Gulf Coast with a one-year statute of limitations for filing suit, and since it may need to assert some claims under state law instead of maritime law or the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, it filed Tuesday evening to make sure it didn’t lose any options. Since some companies that worked on the well aren’t designated as responsible parties for the blowout under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, such as Halliburton, Louisiana may need to press general tort and negligence claims under state law.

The 113-page suit names the partners in the well, Transocean, and contractors who worked on the site. It seeks punitive damages and asks for a jury trial.

Wednesday was also the deadline for the corporate defendants in the case to file cross claims against each over, and it turned into a free-for-all of finger-pointing.

Moex Offshore, which owned a 10 percent stake in the Macondo well, filed suit against BP, Transocean, blowout preventer manufacturer Cameron International and contractors Halliburton, M-I Swaco and Weatherford. The suit says that BP was the designated operator at the site, alleges that BP breached its contract with Moex, and asks the court for a declaration that Moex is not responsible for the blowout. It also alleges that BP, Transocean and other defendants were negligent under state and maritime law, and that Weatherford’s centralizer products and Cameron’s blowout preventer were faulty.

Anadarko, which owned a 25 percent stake in the well, also said that it is not responsible, and filed a similar suit against the same parties.

BP filed a cross-claim against Cameron, saying that the blowout preventer was faulty and the company failed to properly maintain it. The suit says that Cameron should have to make contributions for damage under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and seeks a court declaration that Cameron was partly or wholly responsible for the blowout.

On Tuesday, Halliburton filed suit against BP in state court in Houston.

Transocean has filed cross claims against the lease holders on the well and contractors who worked on it, as well as the United States, the Marine Spill Response Corp., contractors that assisted in the response, and Nalco, manufacturer of the dispersant used to break down the oil that flowed into the ocean.

Rebecca Mowbray can be reached at rmowbray@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3417.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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