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
5 November 2015

USA: Court dismisses oil spill compensation case against Transocean following settlement

Author: Associated Press

“Suits dismissed after Gulf states settle with Transocean over damages from 2010 Gulf oil spill”, 28 Oct 2015

A settlement has led to official dismissal of federal lawsuits filed by the five Gulf of Mexico states against the owner of the offshore drilling rig involved in BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier…dismissed the suits Thursday against Transocean.  Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas joined Transocean in requesting the dismissal recently…The Transocean settlements are far less than settlements announced earlier this year between rig operator BP and the states…

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Article
18 November 2015

USA: Clean-up worker sues BP over alleged exposure to toxic & hazardous compounds following Deepwater Horizon oil disaster

Author: Gene Johnson, Louisiana Record (USA)

"Oil Spill Cleanup Worker sues BP America for alleged exposure to toxic and hazardous compounds", 16 Nov 2015

A vessel captain that performed various cleanup operations from the BP oil spill claims the British petroleum company negligently exposed him to hazardous and cancer-causing compounds. Josip Piacun filed a lawsuit against BP Exploration & Production Inc. and B.P. America Production Co. on July 27 in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District Louisiana citing gross negligence under the general maritime law…The complaint states that Piacun has "developed psychological, dermal, respiratory and cardiopulmonary complications as a result of the exposure." Piacun claims that BP failed to utilize reasonably safe dispersing chemicals in its allegedly haphazard attempts to respond to the oil [spill]…

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Article
15 December 2015

USA: Manslaughter charges dropped against BP employees in Deepwater Horizon oil spill case

Author: Janet McConnaughey & Michael Kunzelman, Huffington Post (USA)

"Manslaughter Charges Dropped In BP Oil Spill Case", 2 Dec 2015

…Prosecutors dropped manslaughter charges against two BP supervisors responsible for safety aboard the oil rig where an explosion killed 11 workers in 2010.  One of them then pleaded guilty Wednesday to the only remaining charge: a misdemeanor count of violating the federal Clean Water Act…[T]estimony during civil cases was among factors that convinced prosecutors that the involuntary manslaughter charges could not legally stand up…Prosecutors' court filing said dismissing the 11 manslaughter each man faced was "in the interests of justice."…This summer, the global energy giant agreed to a record settlement of nearly $20 billion to states affected by the spill in hopes of bringing an end to a legal drama…But the settlement did not affect ongoing criminal cases…Prosecutors said Vidrine and Kaluza botched a key safety test…"As a result of this court proceeding today, no man will ever spend a moment behind bars for killing 11 men for reasons based entirely on greed," [said Keith Jones, whose son Gordon Jones died in the rig explosion].

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Article
3 May 2016

USA: BP expected to face new wave of lawsuits for damages from Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster

Author: Amanda Bronstad, National Law Journal (USA)

"A Flood of Oil Spill Lawsuits Expected Against BP this Month", 2 May 2016

Despite the $20 billion settlement BP PLC struck with the U.S. Department of Justice over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, tens of thousands of lawsuits could hit the courts this month, adding to the oil company's ballooning costs. About 85,000 individuals and businesses claiming nongovernmental economic damages tied to the spill are due to file lawsuits against BP by May 16. Their claims are separate from the $20 billion deal; most were either excluded from or opted out of a 2012 class action settlement that was supposed to resolve economic damages claims...U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier last month signed off on BP’s $20 billion deal...[I]n March... Barbier issued a pretrial order that requires individuals and businesses to file certain documents with the court or face dismissal of their claims...Barbier... set a deadline for May 2...More than 100 law firms filed motions to extend the deadline...Barbier granted the firms a 14-day extension...

 

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