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US Deepwater Horizon explosion & oil spill lawsuits - Health of cleanup workers

Lawsuits over health of US Deepwater Horizon spill cleanup workers

An emblematic case

On 20 July 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against BP, Halliburton, Cameron, Anadarko, MOEX, and two BP subcontractors in the clean-up effort, O’Brien Response Management and Tiger Safety, in a state court in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The case was transferred to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in August 2010.  The plaintiffs include a Louisiana fisherman, John Wunstell, who was hired by BP to take part in the clean-up of the oil spill, and the co-owner of his vessel.  The plaintiffs’ vessel had been assigned to the “burn unit”, which gathered oil, gas and other contaminants from the surface, and burned or were in the vicinity of the burning of these substances.  As a result, the crew was allegedly exposed to large quantities of noxious fumes, gasses and other chemicals, but were allegedly not supplied with respiratory protection.  On 28 May, the fumes and gasses allegedly caused such symptoms that Wunstell had to be taken to hospital.  Wunstell claims that he continues to suffer from his injuries.

According to the plaintiffs, BP should have ensured that all crews on clean-up vessels receive necessary training, protective equipment and other workplace and environmental equipment.  The plaintiffs also allege that vessels were to be detoxified, which had not been done in their case.  The plaintiffs claim that BP, O’Brien Response Management and Tiger Safety were negligent in failing to provide training, protection and respiratory equipment, as they had agreed to do.  They also claim negligence in the deployment of the vessel to an area with high exposure to hazardous fumes and chemicals; in the alleged failure to inform crew members of the danger of hazardous substances; in the alleged failure to monitor the health of the crew members and the surrounding air quality; and in the failure to take appropriate remedial action when crew members fell ill.

The plaintiffs also allege that BP, Halliburton, Cameron, Anadarko and MOEX negligently failed to take adequate safety measures prior to the explosion, which caused the fire and explosion resulting in the oil spill and subsequent injuries and economic harm to the plaintiffs.  In addition to negligence regarding the well itself, plaintiffs allege that the companies negligently increased the environmental damage by adding dispersants and using other harmful or negligent methods and agents in the clean-up.

The plaintiffs seek damages to compensate them for injuries incurred, pain and suffering, damage to the vessel and punitive damages for gross disregard for their safety and health.

In addition, the suit seeks a court-supervised medical monitoring programme, on behalf of volunteers and workers in the clean-up suffering from injuries like the plaintiffs’.  This part of the suit holds that the defendants caused clean-up workers and volunteers to be exposed to dangerous levels of harmful substances, which the defendant companies knew or should have known to increase the risk of developing serious health problems including latent diseases.  The medical monitoring programme would be designed to catch such diseases at an early stage for early treatment.

The case has been included in the federal Multidistrict Litigation consolidated proceedings.

Proceedings on health of cleanup workers following consolidation

On 15 December 2010, the claims of clean-up workers for injuries allegedly suffered due to chemical exposure were consolidated in a master complaint filed in US federal court in New Orleans.  On 26 May 2011, BP, Anadarko, MOEX, Nalco and other defendant companies moved to dismiss personal injury claims of all clean-up workers and volunteers, alleging immunity under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Nalco, which made the dispersant used on the spilled oil, argued that plaintiffs’ claim cannot proceed because the US government approved the use of dispersants.  In response, the Plaintiffs Steering Committee argued that the defendants cannot claim immunity from lawsuits under the CWA because the CWA only applies to damages arising from actions of the US government.

On 3 Mar 2012, BP announced an out of court settlement with the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.  BP is to pay $7.8 billion to settle private plaintiffs’ claims for economic loss, property damage & injuries.

- "BP Reaches Estimated $7.8 Billion Deal With Spill Victims", Jef Feeley, Bloomberg, 5 Mar 2012
- "Oil Spill Hearing to Focus on Sickness and Other Claims BP Wants to Dismiss", Sabrina Canfield, Courthouse News Services, 26 May 2011
- "BP, Spill Partners Harmed Oil Cleanup Crews, Lawyers Say", Laurel Brubaker Calkins, Bloomberg, 31 Mar 2011
- “BP Facing Lawsuit Over Handling of Oil Spill Cleanup”, Hillary Stemple, Jurist.org, 21 Jul 2010
- “Round Two of BP Litigation: The Clean-Up Suits Begin”, Dionne Searcey, Wall Street Journal Law Blog, 20 Jul 2010.
- “BP downplays health risks for spill cleanup crews”, Brett Michael Dykes, Yahoo! News, 1 Jun 2010
- “Medical monitoring and general liability insurance: An uncertain prognosis for coverage”, Bryce L. Friedman, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, 30 Sep, 2010

Legal documents:

- U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Louisiana: [PDF] Omnibus Memorandum in Opposition to Motions to Dismiss Bundle B3 Master Complaint, 30 Mar 2011
- [PDF] Complaint, John Wunstell, Jr. and Kelly Blanchard v. BP, Halliburton, Cameron, Anadarko, Moex, O’Brien Response Management and Tiger Safety, in Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans, Louisiana, 20 Jul 2010