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Judge Allows BP Clean-Up Workers to Pursue Jury Trials

July 8, 2015

The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not been in the news a great deal over the last four or so years, but that does not mean all of the problems it created have been solved.

As a part of its settlement, BP agreed to keep “the door open for plaintiffs […] who develop major illnesses later in life to file separate suits” against the company. As it stood three years ago, plaintiffs were entitled to a decision by a judge; in April, a federal judge in Louisiana decided to amend the earlier decision. Now, individuals involved in clean-up efforts may pursue a jury trial.

This is just the most recent blow against BP: the same judge in September found that the petroleum corporation acted in a “grossly negligent” fashion for its part in the explosion and subsequent spill, which dumped about 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and killed eleven workers. This decision, which BP later lost on appeal, means that the government may decide to add billions of dollars onto the $42 billion fine already levied against BP.

With respect to this new jury trial judgment, BP “disagrees with the Court’s ruling and is considering its options.” The company had previously argued that individuals’ claims were “governed exclusively by maritime law, precluding [their] right to a jury trial.” The most recent decision seems to disagree with this position. Law360 reports, “The medical benefits settlement applies to people who were part of the cleanup crew following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or were residents of certain defined beachfront areas and wetlands during certain time periods in 2010.” For plaintiffs, this is a great victory; the judge’s decision opens the metaphorical floodgates to thousands of potential personal injury jury trials.

As part of its appeals effort in 2012, BP lobbied international businesses to write vaguely threatening briefs to courts around the Gulf. For example, the Federation of German Industries, the Confederation of British Industry, the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, and BritishAmerican Business all sent legal documents arguing that awards to so-called “uninjured” spill victims “makes the United States a less attractive place in which to invest and conduct business.”

This concern about “frivolous” suits led to an audit in November 2014, which identified about .28 percent of total claims as being without merit. This means that of the 1,852 individuals and businesses that claimed losses from the spill, about five or six may have been fraudulent. While it is regrettable that any cases without merit may have made it through, this audit makes it abundantly clear that there are very, very few people gaming the system and taking advantage of BP. Moreover, the auditing agency points out that “90 percent of the documentation deficiencies found by auditors occurred for two reasons: the claims lacked copies of the leases associated with oyster beds, or they lacked clear creation dates for financial statements.”

Since the federal court’s decision has allowed many victims to pursue cases, this will surely not be the last time we discuss the matter.

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