Mother Jones had an interesting article earlier this week about liability in deaths caused overseas and how the cruise ship industry is already fighting the battle for big oil.
When BP’s Texas City refinery exploded in 2005, the company paid $1.6 billion in settlements to injured employees and families of killed workers. But the families of workers killed in the Deepwater Horizon accident won’t be getting the same treatment, Mother Jones said.
A 90-year-old maritime law called the Death on the High Seas Act severely limits liability for companies whose workers die while out at sea.
“In some cases, BP could get away with shelling out sums as paltry as $1,000,” Mother Jones said.
DOHSA was created in 1920 to ensure that the widows and children of seamen could get a share of their husbands’ or fathers’ salaries if they were killed at sea. The law was rather progressive for its time: Previously, the corporations didn’t have to pay the widows anything at all. But DOHSA didn’t change with the times. And because it’s a federal law, it trumps state tort laws that allow injured people to recover all sorts of damages in personal injury cases, including punitive damages for truly egregious corporate behavior, compensation for grief or the loss of companionship, and even the pre-death pain and suffering of the victim.
Senate Judiciary chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation last week that would fix the law so employers would be held accountable for negligence regardless of whether an employee dies on land or at sea.
But Leahy’s bill is up against a powerful industry. And it’s not oil corporations — it’s the cruise line operators. Oil lobbyists may not even have to lift a finger in this one, Mother Jones said.
In 2009, the cruise industry spent $2.2 million fighting changes demanded by cruise ship victims, who were able to introduce legislation with the help of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) that would have fixed DOHSA in the same way Leahy has proposed.
The Carnival cruise line company alone has donated more than $400,000 since 2007 to members of Congress from both parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The offending provision was eventually removed from the cruise-ship safety bill.
Son Michael Pham, VP of the International Cruise Victims Association, said the cruise industry has a big stake in preserving DOHSA the way it is, because changes would make them liable for “all sorts of incidents that it’s currently able to dodge legal responsibility for.”
Pham suggested his group join forces with families of deceased Deepwater workers.
“Hopefully the current issue with BP will keep this issue in front and create more public awareness,” he says. But, as he points [out], it’s unfortunate that it “takes a tragic incident like [the Gulf spill] for people to realize they’ve been taking this for granted.”