US Deepwater Horizon explosion & oil spill lawsuits

Deepwater Horizon Source: US Coast Guard, Creative CommonsOn 20 April 2010, the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire in US waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  11 workers were killed in the explosion and 17 injured.  The rig was owned by Transocean on lease to BP, which was the main operator and developer of the site, with Anadarko Petroleum and MOEX Offshore (part of Mitsui Oil Exploration) as minority co-owners.  Work on the well had been performed just before the explosion by Halliburton.  The “blowout preventer” was built by Cameron International.  On 22 April, the rig sank.  Oil leaked from the ruptured well head until 15 July when it was temporarily stopped; approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil had leaked into the Gulf.  On 19 September 2010, the US government declared the well “effectively dead”.  Oil directly affected coastal areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.  People dependent on fishing and tourism have been severely affected, along with those in other industries, including some farther from the Gulf Coast.  Concerns have also been raised in relation to health hazards for clean-up workers and coastal residents, including harms allegedly caused by chemicals used to disperse the oil (made by Nalco).  Coverage of the human rights impacts of the disaster is available here.

The explosion and spill have given rise to many lawsuits.  By early December 2010, hundreds of lawsuits had been filed against the companies involved; this number is likely to increase further.  Lawsuits have been brought in both federal and state courts (for a selection see below).  People claiming to have suffered economic harm from the spill can also seek compensation through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.  There are two possible claims through the Claims Facility; emergency payments and long-term settlement.  Emergency payments do not prevent the claimants from suing for additional or future losses; however, if a long-term settlement offer is accepted and received, the claimant forgoes the right to sue BP.  More information on the Claims Facility is available here.

Several U.S. Government investigations have been launched into the oil spill including civil and criminal probes conducted by the Justice Department.  The criminal investigation looks into whether improper relations between corporate officials and federal regulators contributed to the accident and breaches of environmental laws.  On 15 December 2010, the US Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against BP, Transocean, Anadarko, MOEX (part of Mitsui Oil Exploration) and the insurer of the rig QBE Underwriting/Lloyd’s Syndicate 1036 (part of Lloyds of London).  The lawsuit will be included in the consolidated proceedings and includes claims under the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act.  BP says that it will answer the allegations in a timely manner and will continue to cooperate with government investigations.  BP’s partners in the well, Anadarko and MOEX, as well as Transocean, say BP is to blame for the spill and should be held liable.  On 15 November 2012 BP announced it had reached a $4.5 billion settlement with the US Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission.  BP agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges and to pay a $1.26 billion fine to the Department of Justice.  The company will also pay $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences.  BP will also pay $525 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

BP has a general policy not to comment on pending litigation, but information about their response to the explosion and spill is accessible on this part of BP’s website.  The site includes a section on claims and links to BP’s internal investigation of the accident.  On 18 October 2010, BP filed a statement with Court saying they will pay all legitimate claims, regardless of the Oil Pollution Act’s limits on liability.  The filing specifically states that “by making this statement, BP and its affiliates are not admitting anything about their conduct”, and expressly denies gross negligence.  On 13 May 2010, Transocean filed a federal court petition (full text here) seeking to limit its liability arguing it did not cause the disaster and should not be responsible for injuries and damages.  On 24 August 2010, the petition was transferred to the federal Multidistrict Litigation consolidated proceedings until further notice.  According to Bloomberg, Transocean commented in September 2010 that it is awaiting clarity on the “complex litigation landscape” and will then “defend its position vigorously”.  Further information on Transocean’s position is available on a section of its site.  In an October 2010 press release, Halliburton argued that the responsibility for the disaster lies with BP, which failed to perform a key test on the cementing.  In May 2010 testimony to Congress, Cameron’s President and CEO outlined Cameron’s general position.  When contacted by Bloomberg in May 2010, a Cameron spokesperson referred to company policy not to comment on litigation.  In a June 2010 statement, Anadarko claimed that the accident was a “direct result of BP’s reckless decisions and actions”.  On 4 September 2014, the judge in the federal Multidistrict Litigation proceedings issued a ruling finding BP grossly negligent and guilty of wilful misconduct in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  The judge also found Halliburton and Transocean guilty of negligence.

Below are profiles of a representative selection of lawsuits against companies raising human rights concerns that arise out of the explosion and spill.  This is not a comprehensive listing of lawsuits bringing human rights claims.

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Article
17 August 2010

Alabama Jumps Into Fight Against BP, as Governor Fights With His Own AG [USA]

Author: Tracey Dalzell Walsh, Courthouse News Service [USA]

Alabama Attorney General Troy King sued BP and allied companies for the "unprecedented environmental disaster" in the Gulf of Mexico... King [also sued]...Transocean, Anadarko Petroleum, Halliburton Energy Services and other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil platform and its operations. King seeks damages for the "...physical injury to and destruction of State resources and property," including "damages equal to the net loss...due to the injury, destruction, or loss of real property, personal property, or natural resources;" damages for impaired earning capacities, and "net costs of providing increased or additional public services during or after removal activities, including protection from fire, safety, or health hazards, caused by the discharge of the oil." King claims the defendants' conduct before and after the oil rig explosion and spill "illustrates the scheme to maximize profits and ignore dangerous risks posed to human health and property..."

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Article
16 August 2010

Waste from BP oil spill cleanup has gulf residents near landfills concerned [USA]

Author: Krissah Thompson, Washington Post

As beach cleanup is scaled down, the fate of all the oily trash created and collected along the Gulf Coast is causing a raging debate that BP and federal officials are trying hard to curb…The answers are leaving important groups unsatisfied. One coastal county threatened to sue BP if it continues to put trash from the spill in a local landfill. Not wanting to get into a tussle with the residents, the company relented, diverting the trash to other landfills. Others are arguing that too much of the trash is going to low-income and minority communities… The Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and BP are "working hand in hand" to manage all that trash -- and are reaching out to community groups to try to allay fears that chemicals from the oil-soaked material could seep into the groundwater drinking supply, said BP spokesman Scott Dean... Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center [says] 61 percent of the trash from the oil spill has been sent to landfills in minority and low-income communities.

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Article
11 August 2010

BP Gulf-Spill Lawsuits Consolidated in New Orleans [USA]

Author: Jef Feeley, Margaret Cronin Fisk, Bloomberg

BP Plc must face hundreds of lawsuits in federal court in New Orleans because the city is closest to the site of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a panel of judges ruled.…U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will preside over more than 300 suits, including wrongful-death claims by families of workers killed in the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Claims also cover revenue lost by Gulf Coast businesses and environmental damage…BP investors’ suits over losses tied to the spill will go to federal court in Houston. Barbier today set Sept. 17 for an initial conference for organizing the lawsuits in his court.

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Article
5 August 2010

Thousands line up to join BP lawsuit [USA]

Author: T.J. Aulds, Daily News [USA]

More than 3,000 people [consider joining] a $10 billion lawsuit filed this week against BP…Friendswood attorney Anthony Buzbee filed a federal lawsuit…over the release of more than 500,000 pounds of pollutants…into the air after a unit failure at BP’s Texas City refinery…Buzbee said his clients who already had signed up have experienced “…common benzene exposure symptoms.”…BP doesn’t argue the fact that more than 250 tons of emissions were sent into the atmosphere during the 40 days. The company does take issue with claims the health of workers and residents was affected. “If we believed there was a health impact associated with this event or any event, we would have notified the community,” BP spokesman Michael Marr said.

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Article
28 July 2010

Criminal probe of oil spill to focus on 3 firms and their ties to regulators [USA]

Author: Jerry Markon, Washington Post

A team of federal investigators known as the "BP squad" is assembling...to conduct a wide-ranging criminal probe that will focus on at least three companies and examine whether their cozy relations with federal regulators contributed to the oil disaster...Scott Dean, a spokesman for…BP, said the company "will cooperate with any inquiry the Justice Department undertakes, just as we are doing in response to other inquiries that are ongoing."…Although lawyers familiar with the case expect that environmental-related charges -- which have a low burden of proof -- will be filed, some doubted that investigators can prove more serious violations such as lying or falsifying test results…The official said that no decisions on criminal charges are imminent [also refers to Transocean, Halliburton]

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Article
27 July 2010

[video] [Report on impacts of Gulf of Mexico oil disaster - available to view in UK only]

Author: BBC Newsnight

[19-minute BBC Newsnight video report on impacts of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, including interviews of people impacted by the spill. Brent Coon, lawyer who is bringing lawsuits against BP over the Gulf spill and who led the successful civil litigation against BP over Texas City refinery explosion in 2005, predicts U.S. Department of Justice investigation will see BP executives end up in jail. Includes comments by BP, U.S. Congressman Bill Cassidy (Louisiana), former BP executive Richard Pike. Currently BBC iPlayer TV programmes are available to play in the UK only]

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Article
23 July 2010

Technician for Deepwater Horizon testifies that warning system disabled [USA]

Author: David S. Hilzenrath, Washington Post

[A]n alarm system [on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig] designed to automatically alert the crew and prevent combustible gases from reaching potential sources of ignition had been deliberately disabled, the former chief electronics technician on the rig testified Friday. Michael Williams,...told a federal panel probing the disaster that other critical systems had been functioning unreliably in the run-up to the blowout...If the safety system was disabled, it would not have been unusual. Williams said that when he discovered that the alarm system was inhibited, he reported it to supervisors. He said they informed him that orders were to keep it that way. The Deepwater Horizon was owned by Transocean, which employs Williams, and was operating under contract to BP... Transocean provided statements taken from crew members saying they heard alarms, and it also released part of an April inspection report that found "no [gas] detectors either in fault or inhibited condition, other than units being serviced."

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Article
20 July 2010

Native Alaskans say oil drilling threatens way of life

Author: BBC News

…Twice a year Native Alaskan communities like…[Barrow in Alaska] hunt whale…But many here worry the whales will bypass Barrow's waters if offshore oil exploration goes ahead, and they have filed lawsuits to stop it. Oil company Shell has spent billions of dollars to lease tracts of seabed from the US government…But the Obama administration…called a temporary halt after the BP oil spill thousands of miles away in the Gulf of Mexico…Pete Slaiby, vice-president of Shell Alaska [said] "We would not have put the money down on these leases had we not felt we could go in and drill these leases safely…"

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Article
1 July 2010

BP: Eagles and vultures [USA]

Author: Financial Times

Tony Buzbee, owner of The Buzbee Law Firm in Houston, Texas, has more than a thousand clients with one common goal: to extract money from BP over the Gulf of Mexico disaster. They include 18 men who were injured in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, one of whom suffered 60 per cent burns. Others, such as fishermen, allege their livelihoods have been directly undermined by the spill...It will not be lost on the company’s lawyers that ExxonMobil fought the Valdez case for two decades, taking some of the emotional sting out of it and eventually having a $5bn punitive damages award cut by 90 per cent on appeal...The only near-certainty – given the compensation fund the company has established – is that the total liabilities will run into the tens of billions of dollars, putting it somewhere between the estimated $4bn Valdez costs and the hundreds of billions in cases involving tobacco and asbestos. [also refers to Anadarko, Halliburton, Macondo, Merck, Mitsui, Transocean]

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Article
19 June 2010

BP rejects oil drill partner's 'negligence' claim [USA]

Author: BBC News

BP has denied claims by one of its partners that its handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill amounted to "gross negligence"...BP said it "strongly disagrees" with Anadarko Petroleum, who said BP's behaviour in the run-up to the disaster was "reckless"...BP has faced mounting criticism for its handling of what has become the worst environmental disaster in US history, as the leak continues to spread despite efforts to contain it...James Hackett, chief executive of Anadarko Petroleum, said it was considering "contractual remedies" for what the company has described as BP's "gross negligence or wilful misconduct" over the spill. [also refers to Mitsui]

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