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
2 February 2011

US judge: oil claims official not independent of BP

Author: AFP

The administrator of BP's $20 billion oil spill compensation fund has been influenced by the British oil giant and must stop telling victims he is independent, a US federal judge said. US District Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans ordered BP to refrain from referring to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) -- a fund set up by the oil firm at the White House's urging -- or its administrator Ken Feinberg as independent. The firm must also inform those filing claims for compensation from the disastrous spill that they have the right to consult with an attorney of their choice and can join some of the hundreds of lawsuits pending against BP if they do not accept a final payment, according to the ruling.... Barbier wrote..."While BP may have delegated to Mr Feinberg and the GCCF independence in the evaluation and payment of individual claims, many other facts support a finding that the GCCF and Mr Feinberg are not completely 'neutral' or independent from BP."

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Article
17 February 2011

Oil spill response system launched [USA]

Author: Sheila McNulty, Financial Times

Oil companies on Thursday launched a spill containment system in the Gulf of Mexico in a bid to restart the issuance of permits stalled after BP’s fatal Macondo well disaster. ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and ConocoPhillips unveiled the interim containment system, which they said was open to all operators in the gulf. A second response system, by Helix Energy Solutions Group, is to be ready at the end of March. The move comes in the wake of the first bankruptcy to emerge from the slowdown in drilling imposed by regulators in the Gulf of Mexico...Randy Stilley, Seahawk’s chief executive...[said]: “The decision by regulators to arbitrarily construct unnecessary barriers to obtaining permits...has had an adverse impact...on the sector as a whole.’’...[The] Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement said it was investigating an incident on Apache Corporation’s natural gas production platform off Lake Charles, Louisiana, on February 16 in which a worker died...

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Article
26 February 2011

Panel Report on Gulf Spill Is Delayed [USA]

Author: Associated Press

A federal panel investigating the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the resulting oil spill will not finish its final report by the first anniversary of the disaster as it had hoped. Delays in testing the blowout preventer that failed to stop the spill forced the panel — a joint effort by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — to seek another deadline extension…

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Article
27 February 2011

BP payments may not save Indians' livelihoods

Author: Cain Burdeau, Associated Press

Louisiana's American Indian fishing villages…want Feinberg to compensate them not just for lost wages but for a way of life that relied on the bounty of the marshes and now is in jeopardy…Tribal leaders say they're worried many members won't be compensated fairly, so they've brought on a New York City law firm to help the tribes navigate the difficult claims process…Feinberg told those at his first meeting with Indian tribes Friday that he wanted to pay them claims for the value seafood and hunting plays in their everyday lives - so-called "subsistence claims."…"It's a claim that my lifestyle has been adversely impacted by my inability to any longer live off the resources that I hunt or catch," he said. "What I could go hunt or fish I now have to go buy.”

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Article
28 February 2011

BP, others ask judge to dismiss oil spill claims [USA]

Author: Associated Press

BP and other companies sued over the massive Gulf oil spill are asking a federal judge to dismiss many of the claims filed by businesses and people who say they have been harmed by the disaster .U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier set Monday as a deadline for BP, Transocean and other companies to file motions to dismiss claims over last year's deadly Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and the spill that followed it.Rig owner Transocean says many plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed because they allegedly failed to follow the terms of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and filed suit before properly presenting their claims to BP…

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Article
7 March 2011

Criminal Investigations Into BP Oil Spill Are Consolidated

Author: Tracy Tennille, Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Justice Department is consolidating its criminal investigations into BP PLC's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, folding the work of three different offices and divisions within the department under one task force. Justice said...it had formed the Deepwater Horizon Task Force to oversee all facets of the criminal investigation, which is being undertaken by the department's criminal division, its environment and natural resources division, and the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Louisiana...It will be investigating the April 2010 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent oil spill that became the worse offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

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Article
14 March 2011

Widow of Deepwater Horizon Crewman Settles Lawsuit Against BP

Author: Laurel Brubaker Calkins, Allen Johnson Jr

The widow of Keith Blair Manuel, one of 11 crew members who died in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, has settled her lawsuit against BP…Terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans today agreed to dismiss Melinda Anne Becnel’s suit against BP, which hired the rig to drill a subsea well that blew out off the Louisiana coast last year, causing the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history. Becnel’s claims against BP’s partners in the well and other oilfield contractors involved in the project were also dismissed. [also refers to Transocean ]

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Article
30 March 2011

Will BP Execs Face Criminal Charges? Not Likely, Experts Say

Author: Laura Parer, Aol News

A Bloomberg News report[s] that the U.S. Justice Department is considering manslaughter charges in its investigation of BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico…But if criminal charges are filed against individuals involved in the disaster, it would be a rare event. An analysis of industrial disasters by University of Maryland law professor Jane Barrett shows that company managers are almost never charged in industrial accidents - even in disasters that have killed more people than the 11 men who died in last year's explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig…"If [the Justice Daprtment is]...able to prosecute individuals, they'll send a message that a large corporate criminal find won't shield culpable individuals from prosecution…A spokesman at BP declined to respond to an inquiry for comment.

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Article
31 March 2011

BP, Spill Partners Harmed Oil Cleanup Crews, Lawyers Say

Author: Laurel Brubaker Calkins, Bloomberg

BP… its drilling partners and 11 contractors who made or applied chemical dispersants to attack the 2010 Gulf oil spill should compensate boat owners, cleanup crews and residents injured by contact with the toxic substances, lawyers suing the firms said. Cleanup workers suffered health problems after accidentally touching or being sprayed with the dispersants, according to an amended master complaint filed in New Orleans federal court today as part of the oil-spill litigation consolidated there...Gulf coast residents and tourists are also suing…In addition…the complaint seeks unspecified punitive damages from London-based BP and the other companies for reckless and negligent behavior. The suit also asks that BP be required to establish medical- and environmental-monitoring programs in affected parts of the Gulf coast [refers to Transocean, Anadarko and Nalco Holding].

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Article
5 April 2011

BP Denies it Has Liability Under Both Oil Pollution and Clean Water Acts

Author: Sabrina Canfield, Courthouse News Service

BP filed an answer in Federal Court…to the federal government's lawsuit seeking damages for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, under the Clean Water and Oil Pollution Acts. BP wrote in response that the government's "request for a declaratory judgment regarding alleged damages under OPA constitutes improper claim splitting." BP admits the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon caused the oil spill…but says the amount of oil spilled from its Macondo well is still unknown...BP denies that it contributed to the spill through "corporate practices of disregarding federal regulations…reflecting the known failure, prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill, to properly design, install, maintain, repair, and operate equipment intended to prevent personal injury, loss of life, harm to the environment, and disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill."

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