The Donovan Law Group

How the BP Oil Spill Proposed Class Action Settlement Makes a Mockery of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

How the BP Oil Spill Proposed Class Action Settlement

Makes a Mockery of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Tampa, FL (July 5, 2012) – On April 18, 2012, the MDL 2179 Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (“PSC”) and BP filed their Proposed Settlement. The Proposed Settlement allegedly intends to resolve certain claims by private individuals and businesses for economic loss and property damage resulting from the “Deepwater Horizon Incident.” The Proposed Settlement defines “Deepwater Horizon Incident” as the events, actions, inactions and omissions leading up to and including (i) the blowout of the MC252 Well; (ii) the explosions and fire on board the Deepwater Horizon on or about April 20, 2010; (iii) the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon on or about April 22, 2010; (iv) the release of oil, other hydrocarbons and other substances from the MC252 Well and/or the Deepwater Horizon and its appurtenances; (v) the efforts to contain the MC252 Well; (vi) Response Activities, including the VoO Program; (vii) the operation of the GCCF; and (viii) BP public statements relating to all of the foregoing.

On May 2, 2012, the MDL 2179 Court entered a Preliminary Approval Order [As to the Proposed Economic and Property Damages Class Action Settlement].

On July 2, 2012, Plaintiff Selmer M. Salvesen, a clam farmer in Florida, filed a Motion to Vacate Preliminary Approval Order [As to the Proposed Economic and Property Damages Class Action Settlement], Rec. Doc. 6418 dated May 2, 2012, with the MDL 2179 Court.

The following is an excerpt from Plaintiff Salvesen’s Motion to Vacate.

B.  The Proposed Settlement Violates the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (“OPA”).

Judge Barbier clearly states, “Moreover, OPA applies of its own force, because that act governs, inter alia, private claims for property damage and economic loss resulting from a discharge of oil in navigable waters. See 33 U.S.C. § 2702(a), (b)(2)(B), (b)(2)(C), (b)(2)(E).” (p. 11, Rec. Doc. 3830); “OPA is a comprehensive statute addressing responsibility for oil spills, including the cost of clean-up, liability for civil penalties, as well as economic damages incurred by private parties and public entities. Indeed, the Senate Report provides that the Act “builds upon section 311 of the Clean Water Act to create a single Federal law providing cleanup authority, penalties, and liability for oil pollution.” S. Rep. 101-94, at 730 (1989). One significant part of OPA broadened the scope of private persons who are allowed to recover for economic losses resulting from an oil spill. OPA allows recovery for economic losses “resulting from” or “due to” the oil spill, regardless of whether the claimant sustained physical damage to a proprietary interest. OPA allows recovery for “[d]amages equal to the loss of profits or impairment of earning capacity due to the injury, destruction, or loss of real property, or natural resources, which shall be recoverable by any claimant.” 33 U.S.C. § 2702(b)(2)(E) (Emphasis added). Furthermore, the House Report noted that “[t]he claimant need not be the owner of the damaged property or resources to recover for lost profits or income.” H.R. Conf. Rep. 101-653, at 781 (1990).” (pp. 20-21, Rec. Doc. 3830).

The Proposed Settlement is replete with references to the OPA: “….the operation of BP’s separate OPA facility…” (p. 27, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “This provision does not apply to Economic Class Members who have gone through the OPA Process and provided a release as part of that OPA Process.” (p. 66, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “The Release is not intended to prevent BP from exercising its rights of contribution, subrogation, or indemnity under the OPA……” (p. 72, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “BP is hereby subrogated to any and all rights that the Economic Class Members, or any of them, may have had or have arising out of, due to, resulting from, or relating in any way to, directly or indirectly, the Deepwater Horizon Incident under the OPA.” (p. 72, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “Notwithstanding the law applicable to the underlying claims, which the Parties dispute, this Agreement and the Release and Individual Releases hereunder shall be interpreted in accordance with General Maritime Law as well as in a manner intended to comply with OPA.” (p. 90, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “OPA Process shall mean the claims presentment procedure pursuant to the OPA, including claims that have been submitted to the BP Parties or claims that have been submitted to the GCCF as part of the OPA Process.” (p. 104, Rec. Doc. 6276-1); “….the parties have represented that BP will continue to receive and process Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) claims for those excluded from the settlement class and those who opt out of the settlement class. (Tr. of Prelim. Approval Hr’g, 4/25/12, pp. 14-15, 49-50, Rec. Doc. 6395); see also Attach. “A” to Supp. Decl. of Cameron Azari, Ques. 15 & 25, Rec. Doc. 6414-4 at 15, 23). Presumably, that process will include an interim payments process, as well as any other requirements imposed by OPA. See 33 U.S.C. §§ 2705(a), 2714(b)(2).“ (p. 18, Rec. Doc. 6418); “This is, unlike most mass torts, a single-incident disaster, governed predominantly by a single body of federal law including OPA and uniform federal maritime law.” (p. 28, Rec. Doc. 6418).

Clearly, BP and the PSC are very familiar with the OPA and quite capable of applying the statute. Unfortunately, BP and the PSC cherry-pick OPA’s provisions for their benefit at the detriment to Claimants and Plaintiffs.

1.  The Proposed Settlement Defines Class Members by Geographic Bounds and Certain Business Activities While Requiring Proof of a Heightened, Vague  Standard of Causation.

OPA is a strict liability statute. In order to recover damages, a claimant merely needs to show that his or her damages “resulted from” the oil spill. OPA, in pertinent part, states:

“The responsible party for a vessel or a facility from which oil is discharged, or which poses the substantial threat of a discharge of oil, into or upon the navigable waters or adjoining shorelines or the exclusive economic zone is liable for the removal costs and damages that result from such incident.” See 33 U.S.C. § 2702(a).

The damages referred to in 33 U.S.C. § 2702(a) include, but are not limited to:

“Damages equal to the loss of profits or impairment of earning capacity due to the injury, destruction, or loss of real property, personal property, or natural resources, which shall be recoverable by any claimant.” 33 U.S.C. § 2702(b)(2)(E) (Emphasis added).

OPA’s legislative history is shot through with general statements indicative of congressional intent to authorize recovery of “a broad class of damages.” 135 CONG. REC. E842, (daily ed. Mar. 16, 1989) (statement of Rep. Jones). See also S. REP. NO. 101–94, at 12 (1989), reprinted in 1990 U.S.C.C.A.N. 722, 734. (“These provisions are intended to provide compensation for a wide range of injuries and are not so narrowly focused as to prevent victims of an oil spill from receiving reasonable compensation.”); 135 CONG. REC. H7893 (daily ed. Nov. 1, 1989) (statement of Rep. Quillen) (“full, fair, and swift compensation for everyone injured by oil spills”; “residents of States will be fully compensated for all economic damages”).

The OPA statute was carefully drafted by Congress. It seems plain that the combination of Sections 2702(a) and 2702(b)(2)(E) requires an economic-loss claimant to establish that the defendant’s spill was a factual cause of injury, destruction, or loss of tangible property or natural resources that in turn was a factual cause of the claimant’s damages – nothing more and nothing less. Because the prevailing, default test for factual causation in Anglo-American tort law is the but-for test, we can be fairly precise about the evident meaning of Sections 2702(a) and 2702(b)(2)(E) for an economic-loss claimant: The claimant is required to show that if the spill had not brought about the injury, destruction, or loss of tangible property or natural resources, the damages complained of probably would not have been sustained. See David W. Robertson, The Oil Pollution Act’s Provisions on Damages for Economic Loss, 30 Miss. C.L. Rev. 157 (2011).

An early version of a bill culminating in OPA provided that economic loss plaintiffs would have to prove “proximate cause;” Congress took that out of the bill. Neither Section 2702(a) nor Section 2702(b)(2)(E) includes any mention of “proximate cause.” Where Congress includes limiting language in an earlier version of a bill but deletes it prior to enactment, it may be presumed that the limitation was not intended. Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 23-24 (1983). Therefore, Russello counsels us to conclude that the OPA Congress did not want to require claimants seeking economic loss damages to meet a proximate cause requirement. Id.

OPA’s predecessor legislation included an explicit proximate cause limit. Title III of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments of 1978 provided for the recovery of pollution-caused damages that were “proximately caused by the discharge of oil from an offshore facility or vessel.” OPA repealed this provision, replacing it with Section 2702(a). So here again, the Russello canon calls for the presumption that the OPA Congress did not intend a proximate cause limit to be read into its economic loss provisions. See H.R. REP. NO. 101–653 (1990) (Conf. Rep.) (presenting § 1002(a) of H.R. 1465 as providing for liability for removal costs and damages “that result from” a spill or substantial threat of a spill; the language is identical to the enacted Section 2702(a)). Here once again, the Russello canon requires a presumption that the OPA Congress intended that for purposes of recovering economic loss damages, the only causation requirement should be factual causation (Emphasis added). Id.

The Preliminary Approval Order states that the Economic Loss and Property Damage Settlement Class “would consist of individuals and entities defined by (1) geographic bounds and (2) the nature of their loss or damage. If both criteria are not met……..the individual or entity is not within the settlement class.” “The geographic bounds of the settlement are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and certain coastal counties in eastern Texas and western Florida, as well as specified adjacent Gulf waters, bays, etc. Individuals must have lived, worked, owned property, leased property, etc., in these areas between April 20, 20108 and April 16, 2012. Similarly, entities must have conducted certain business activity in these areas between April 20, 2010 and April 16, 2012.” (p. 5, Rec. Doc. 6418). “Causation is presumed for some claimants; other claimants must demonstrate that a loss is due to the oil spill as outlined by the Proposed Settlement.” (p. 8, Rec. Doc. 6418).

OPA’s legislative history specifically mentioned classes of claimants as entitled to protection. These included, but were not limited to, fishermen and beachfront hotel owners, fish processing plant employees, and those who work at the companies depending on the fisheries. 135 CONG. REC. E1237 (daily ed. Apr. 13, 1989) (statement of Rep. Miller); “an employee at a coastal motel” 135 CONG. REC. H7898 (daily ed. Nov. 1, 1989) (statement of Rep. Jones); “restaurant operators” 135 CONG. REC. H8263 (daily ed. Nov. 9, 1989) (statement of Rep. Studds); “fishermen and others whose livelihood depended on the once-pristine waters” 135 CONG. REC. H8271(daily ed. Nov. 9, 1989) (statement of Rep. Slaughter).

The following is merely one example of how the Proposed Settlement limits BP’s liability at the expense of BP oil spill victims:

Jack owns a seafood restaurant located in Macon, Georgia which serves seafood exclusively from the Gulf of Mexico. Jack’s restaurant has always catered to those diners who prefer fresh seafood, delivered straight from the Gulf of Mexico, over the processed seafood dishes served by the national seafood restaurant chains.

The BP oil spill incident devastated the commercial fishing industries of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, thereby virtually eliminating the ability of Jack’s restaurant to serve fresh seafood to its customers. Fresh oysters and mini-shrimp, two of Jack’s most popular items, were unavailable. Jack was forced to pay higher prices for frozen seafood to East Coast seafood suppliers. The negative publicity generated by the constant media coverage of this oil spill incident made even Jack’s loyal customers fearful of eating seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. A marketing survey commissioned by Louisiana’s seafood promotion board reported in January, 2011 that about 71 percent of consumers polled nationally expressed some level of concern about seafood safety.

Jack claims that the stoppage of fresh seafood deliveries from the Gulf of Mexico, the increase in the price of alternative East Coast seafood, and the fear of seafood contamination and seafood poisoning that resulted from the BP oil spill incident decreased gross sales to the point that the restaurant, after approximately 25 years of successful and profitable operation, was forced to close its doors.

In the above example, Jack was forced to close his restaurant as a result of the BP oil spill. Under OPA, since the damages resulted from the BP oil spill incident, damages shall be recoverable by Jack. Under the Proposed Settlement, due to the arbitrary geographic bounds established by BP/PSC, Jack is out of luck.

As the Supreme Court recently explained:

[I]n interpreting a statute a court should always turn first to one, cardinal canon before all others. We have stated time and again that courts must presume that a legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there. Conn. Nat’l Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253–54 (1992).

Congress never intended that a claimant’s recovery of damages under OPA be limited by geographic bounds, pertain solely to certain business activities, or require a heightened, and in this case vague, proof of causation between his or her damages and the oil spill incident.

2.  The Proposed Settlement Provides for a Shortened Period of Limitations.

Under OPA, an action for damages shall be barred unless the action is brought within three years after the date on which the loss and the connection of the loss with the discharge in question are reasonably discoverable with the exercise of due care. 33 U.S.C. § 2717(f)(1)(A)

In violation of OPA, the Preliminary Approval Order states, “The deadline for filing most claims with the Settlement Program is the later of April 22, 2014 or six months after the “Effective Date” of the Proposed Settlement. Claimants in the Seafood Compensation Program must submit their claim within 30 days from the date of entry of a Final Order and Judgment of the Court after it rules upon final approval of the Proposed Settlement.”  (p. 6, Rec. Doc. 6418).

The Proposed Settlement’s “take it or leave it” period of limitations and the final settlement offer are unconscionable, requiring the financially-stressed Plaintiffs to file a claim before Plaintiffs know, and are able to corroborate, the full extent of the damages incurred as a result of the BP oil spill. As Judge Barbier aptly stated in his Order of August 26, 2011, “The long term effects [of the BP oil spill] on the environment and fisheries may not be known for many years.” (p. 31, Rec. Doc. 3830) (Emphasis added).

3.  The Proposed Settlement Requires Class Members to Waive Their Right to Sue in Exchange for a Miniscule Single Final Settlement Payment.

OPA further provides: (a) “Payment or settlement of a claim for interim, short-term damages representing less than the full amount of damages to which the claimant ultimately may be entitled shall not preclude recovery by the claimant for damages not reflected in the paid or settled partial claim.” 33 U.S.C. § 2705(a); and (b) Any person, including the [Oil Spill Liability Trust] Fund, who pays compensation pursuant to OPA to any claimant for damages shall be subrogated to all rights, claims, and causes of action that the claimant has under any other law. Moreover, payment of such a claim shall not foreclose a claimant’s right to recovery of all damages to which the claimant otherwise is entitled under OPA or under any other law. 33 U.S.C. § 2715(b)(2).

The Preliminary Approval Order states, “Those who accept payments under the Proposed Settlement are required to release their claims against BP, government oil spill liability funds, and all other Defendants in MDL 2179 (except Transocean and Halliburton)….If preliminary approval is given, the Settlement Program will process claims and make settlement payments to class members so long as they execute an individual release.” (pp. 6-7, Rec. Doc. 6418).

OPA’s legislative history is shot through with general statements indicative of congressional intent to ensure that all oil spill victims are fully compensated. 135 CONG. REC. H7959 (daily ed. Nov. 2, 1989) (statement of Rep. Tauzin) (“ensure that all victims are fully compensated”); 135 CONG. REC. H7964 (daily ed. Nov. 2, 1989) (statement of Rep. Hammerschmidt) (“ensure that all justified claims for compensation are satisfied”); 135 CONG. REC. H7969 (daily ed. Nov. 2, 1989) (statement of Rep. Dyson) (“assurances that damages arising from spills will be completely compensated”); 136 CONG. REC. H336 (daily ed. Feb. 7, 1990) (statement of Rep. Carper) (“ensure that those people or those businesses that are damaged by these spills are fairly and adequately compensated”); 136 CONG. REC. S7752 (daily ed. June 12, 1990) (statement of Sen. Mitchell) (“ensure the fullest possible compensation of oil spill victims”).

No claimant should receive any less compensation from the Proposed Settlement than they are entitled to under the OPA. Under OPA, as noted above, the term “claim” means “a request, made in writing for a sum certain, for compensation for damages or removal costs resulting from an [oil spill] incident” and payment of such a claim shall not foreclose a claimant’s right to recovery of all damages to which the claimant otherwise is entitled under OPA or under any other law. 33 U.S.C. § 2715(b)(2).

4.  The Proposed Settlement Fails to Pay Interest on the Amount Paid.

Under OPA, 33 U.S.C. § 2705(a), the responsible party or the responsible party’s guarantor is liable to a claimant for interest on the amount paid in satisfaction of a claim. The period for which interest shall be paid is the period beginning on the 30th day following the date on which the claim is presented to the responsible party or guarantor and ending on the date on which the claim is paid. The Proposed Settlement fails to pay interest on the amount paid in satisfaction of a claim.

Plaintiff Salvesen respectfully points out to this Honorable Court that the Proposed Settlement makes a mockery of the OPA.

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