While national TV televised British Petroleum’s newest attempt to “Top Kill” their massive leak in the Gulf of Mexico this week, class action lawsuits continued to pop up against the embattled oil company. The Economist reports that in the two weeks following the April 20 spill alone, more than 70 legal challenges sprouted up, many of which were class action suits on behalf of clumps of victims.
Setting aside the fact that The Economist makes the cliched assumption that lawyers are out to make a profit, rather than the most likely force to successfully hold BP accountable for the spill, the article has some solid points about the forthcoming litigation firestorm about to engulf BP.
Attorneys are mixed on whether such lawsuits will hamstring BP. If you take the Exxon Valdez 1989 spill in Alaska as any indication, BP isn’t likely to be financially devastated. Although early reports estimated that Exxon would have to pay $4 billion in clean-up and legal fees, a 2008 Supreme Court decision reduced the punitive damages from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million, a big coup for the company. Although Democrats are trying to lift the liability cap from $75 million to $10 billion, it remains unclear whether their efforts to apply the new limit retroactively to BP are constitutional.
Cash penalties aside, plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t think it will be difficult to pin liability on BP. “Under the Oil Pollution Act, the fact that it was BP’s oil is enough,” said New Orleans lawyer Keith Hall. In essence, plaintiffs “don’t have to show they were negligent or grossly negligent,” he said. And Houston attorney Tommy Fibich said “The litigation is spreading faster than the slick…This legislation will dwarf other corporate catastrophes.”
The Economist was right about another thing: it has been a huge year for plaintiffs’ lawyers and class action lawsuits. Earlier this month, a federal judge approved a request to increase the size of the plaintiffs’ team in a multi-district litigation suit probing Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems. I hope BP succeeds in ending the stream so that oil will stop spewing into the Gulf and lapping up against Louisiana beaches. If it doesn’t, the British oil giant is sure to face more lawsuits and higher fines.
Photo credit: USCGD8