As a federal judge prepares to rule on a proposed settlement related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, attorneys were in his New Orleans courtroom Friday arguing over how to apply a law passed in response to another disaster 20 years earlier — the Exxon Valdez spill.
Some of the plaintiffs seeking redress from British oil giant BP over losses related to the blowout of its Macondo well say the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 should be interpreted liberally, allowing them to collect for indirect losses beyond cleanup from the devastating 2010 explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon, killed 11 rig workers and caused an undersea rupture that gushed crude for nearly four months.
The plaintiffs seek to cover losses related to use of recreational enjoyment of the Gulf Coast, property loss related to the damaged reputation of the Gulf Coast and loss of business for BP gasoline dealers from damaged reputation.
On Friday, BP attorney Christopher Landau argued to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier that the Oil Pollution Act does not extend to such unrealized property losses.
“OPA does not purport to cover economic liability that anyone might claim,” Landau said. “It does not take liability to its outer limits. We are just going way beyond that line if we are just talking about unrealized property losses. These are pure stigma claims, when the only stigma is being in the general vicinity of the Gulf.”
The proposed BP settlement is estimated at $7.8 billion.
One expert following the case said Barbier’s decisions will establish precedents for how the Oil Pollution Act could be applied to future oil spills.
“The universe of what the OPA applies to and doesn’t is going to be tested,” said Chris Dean, a Houston-based attorney representing dozens of spill claimants. “This judge is going to have to make tough decisions about different species of claims that never have been made before. He will make it through a series of rulings on different types of cases.”
In a separate filing in Barbier’s court Friday afternoon, the plaintiffs’ group that negotiated the proposed settlement rebutted objections lodged earlier in the week by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Mississippi and some individuals.
The Plaintiffs’ Steering Group, attorneys appointed by a federal judge to represent individual litigants, challenged the objections of Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell that the settlement should not be approved because many spill victims in that state have already signed waivers in exchange for immediate final payments.
The plaintiffs’ group also countered claims by a group called Gulf Organized Fisheries in Solidarity and Hope that the settlement should alter its formula for awarding money to specific members of the industry. The commercial fishermen’s group claims the settlement would favor the owners of oyster beds and shortchange deckhands and individual fishermen.
‘Bear that in mind’
The judge is expected to hear further legal arguments on Nov. 8. He said Friday that he will not take witness testimony but rely instead on documents and previously sworn testimony.
Barbier has given the overall settlement tentative approval, and a court-appointed claims payment system has begun making offers to Gulf Coast individuals and businesses.
Barbier made it clear Friday that the next hearing will follow a predetermined agenda, and he gave no indication there would be any scheduling delays.
“I do not intend to further entertain multiple people voicing the same or cumulative objections,” he said. “I do not intend for this to turn into a school board meeting. Bear that in mind.”