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GM, Like BP, Will Use Multidistrict Litigation and the Fund Approach to Limit Its Liability

GM, Like BP, Will Use Multidistrict Litigation and the Fund Approach to Limit Its Liability

 

April 3, 2014

The Faulty GM Ignition Switch
Since February, 2014, General Motors (“GM”) has recalled 2.6 million cars – mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions – over a faulty ignition switch, which can cause the engine to cut off in traffic, disabling the power steering, power brakes and air bags and making it difficult to control the vehicle.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said that House Energy and Commerce Committee staff members found 133 warranty claims filed with GM over 10 years detailing customer complaints of sudden engine stalling when they drove over a bump or brushed keys with their knees.

The claims were filed between June 2003 and June 2012. Waxman said that because GM didn’t undertake a simple fix when it learned of the problem, “at least a dozen people have died in defective GM vehicles.”

GM intends to handle its liability for failing to properly address its faulty ignition switch problem in the same manner that BP addressed its liability for the BP oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s basically a simple two-pronged approach:

(a) The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) will order that centralization of the GM faulty ignition switch cases will “eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary; and serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the more just and efficient conduct of the cases.” In sum, all GM cases will be consolidated in one transferee federal court; and (b) GM retains Feinberg Rozen, LLP to manage a fund to allegedly compensate the GM victims for all “legitimate” claims.

GM ignition switch victims may find the following manner in which BP limited its liability for the BP oil spill of 2010 to be instructive.

Multidistrict Litigation (“MDL”) and the Fund Approach
Judicial economy is undoubtedly well-served by MDL consolidation when scores of similar cases are pending in the courts. Regrettably, for victims of the BP oil spill, the BP Oil Spill Multidistrict Litigation (“MDL 2179”) is a “faux” MDL – i.e., an MDL that limits the liability of the defendants, grants excessive compensation to the members of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (“PSC”) and other counsel performing common benefit work, and fails to adequately compensate the plaintiffs.

MDL 2179 is a “faux” MDL primarily because of: (a) the manner in which Kenneth R. Feinberg was permitted by the JPML and the MDL 2179 Court to administer the BP compensation fund; and (b) the terms and conditions of the BP/PSC class settlement agreement.

MDL 2179 officially started on August 10, 2010. The Transfer Order issued on that date by JPML clearly states: “.. Centralization may also facilitate closer coordination with Kenneth Feinberg’s administration of the BP compensation fund.” The JPML made it clear from the very beginning that the purpose of centralization was not merely to eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary; and serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the more just and efficient conduct of the BP oil spill cases. Here, the purpose of centralization was to maximize judicial economy via the creation of a “faux” class settlement wrapped in a “faux” MDL.

From the very beginning, the purpose of MDL 2179 was to replace democratic adversarial litigation with a fund approach to compensating victims of the BP oil spill. The vast majority of BP oil spill victims will never have their day in court. Judicial economy, rather than justice, is the primary objective.

The fund approach to resolving mass claims, i.e., those claims resulting from the BP oil spill incident, ought to be viewed with a significant degree of concern. The precedent established by the JPML and the MDL 2179 Court is clear: A “Responsible Party” under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (“OPA 90”) may now enter into a contract with a politically well-connected third party “Claims Administrator,” i.e., Kenneth R. Feinberg and Feinberg Rozen, LLP, d/b/a Gulf Coast Claims Facility (“GCCF”). This third party “Administrator / Straw Person,” directly and excessively compensated by the party responsible for the oil spill incident, may totally disregard OPA 90, operate the claims process of the responsible party as fraudulently and negligently as it desires for the sole purpose of limiting the liability of, and providing closure to, the responsible party, and the third party “Administrator / Straw Person” shall never be held accountable for its tortious acts.

The operation of the GCCF has allowed BP to control, manage, and settle its liabilities on highly preferential terms; has permitted members of the MDL 2179 PSC, who are directly appointed by Judge Barbier, to be excessively compensated for merely negotiating a collusive settlement agreement; and has enabled judges to clear their dockets of large numbers of cases. In sum, fund approaches to resolving massive liabilities shift power over claims resolution entirely into the hands of self-interested parties and largely evade judicial scrutiny and oversight.

As noted above, judicial economy is undoubtedly well-served by MDL consolidation when scores of similar cases are pending in the courts. Nevertheless, the excessive delay and marginalization of juror fact finding (i.e., dearth of jury trials) associated with traditional MDL practice are developments that cannot be defended. The appropriate focus for fund resolution of mass claims should be justice for the claimants, not merely judicial economy and closure for the corporate misfeasor.

Kenneth Feinberg’s Administration of the BP Compensation Fund
On August 23, 2010, Feinberg Rozen, LLP, doing business as GCCF, replaced the claims process which BP had established to fulfill its obligations as a responsible party pursuant to OPA 90.

Kenneth Feinberg used the fear of costly and protracted litigation to coerce victims of the BP oil spill to accept grossly inadequate settlements from GCCF. During town hall meetings organized to promote GCCF, Feinberg repeatedly told victims of the BP oil spill, “the litigation route in court will mean uncertainty, years of delay and a big cut for the lawyers.” “I am determined to come up with a system that will be more generous, more beneficial, than if you go and file a lawsuit.” “It is not in your interest to tie up you and the courts in years of uncertain protracted litigation when there is an alternative that has been created,” Feinberg said. He added, “I take the position, if I don’t find you eligible, no court will find you eligible.”

GCCF employed two strategies to limit BP’s liability:
(a) an “Expedited Emergency Advance Payment (“EAP”) Denial” strategy. This strategy is as follows: “Fail to verify, investigate, and appraise the amount of loss claimed by the claimant in the EAP claim and deny the EAP claim without ever requesting supporting documentation from the claimant;” and

(b) a “Delay, Deny, Defend” strategy against legitimate oil spill victims. This strategy, commonly used by unscrupulous insurance companies, is as follows: “Delay payment, starve claimant, and then offer the economically and emotionally-stressed claimant a miniscule percent of all damages to which the claimant is entitled. If the financially ruined claimant rejects the settlement offer, he or she may sue.”

The ultimate objective of Feinberg’s “Expedited EAP Denial” strategy and “Delay, Deny, Defend” strategy was to limit BP’s liability by obtaining a signed “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” from as many BP oil spill victims as possible.

The “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” requirement forces economically and emotionally-stressed victims of the BP oil spill to sign a release and covenant not to sue in order to receive a miniscule payment amount for all damages, including future damages, they incur as a result of the BP oil spill. Feinberg’s “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” requirement violates OPA 90, State contract law, and is contrary to public policy.

The “Expedited EAP Denial” strategy and “Delay, Deny, Defend” strategy, although unconscionable, have proven to be very effective for Feinberg and BP:

The GCCF data indicates that a total of 574,379 unique claimants filed claims with the GCCF during the period from approximately August 23, 2010 to March 7, 2012. The GCCF paid only 221,358 of these claimants. In sum, the GCCF denied payment to approximately 61.46% of the claimants who filed claims; the average total amount paid per claimant was $27,466.47.

The status report data further indicates that the GCCF paid a total of 230,370 claimants who filed claims with the GCCF during the “Phase II” period. Of these, 195,109 were either Quick Pay or Full Review Final payments; only 35,261 were Interim payments. In sum, the GCCF forced 84.68% of the claimants to sign a release and covenant not to sue in which the claimant agreed not to sue BP and all other potentially liable parties; only 15.31% of the claimants were not required to sign a release and covenant not to sue in order to be paid. Feinberg’s “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” excluded approximately 200,000 BP oil spill victims from the MDL 2179 Economic and Property Damages Class Settlement Agreement.

The BP/PSC Class Settlement Agreement
BP and the PSC reported settlement negotiations began “in earnest” in February 2011 for two distinct class action settlements: a Medical Benefits Settlement and an Economic and Property Damages Settlement.” In sum, the PSC initiated settlement negotiations “in earnest” merely four (4) months after Judge Barbier appointed members to the PSC. Clearly, the MDL 2179 class settlement was not achieved in the full context of adversarial litigation.

There is little doubt that any class settlement agreement which: (a) excludes approximately 200,000 claimants from the settlement benefits because they had been forced to sign an unconscionable “Release and Covenant Not to Sue;” and
(b) excessively compensates members of the PSC and other counsel performing common benefit work is neither “fair, adequate, and reasonable” nor “free from collusion.”

In sum, a faux class settlement wrapped in a faux MDL is not right for America because it:

(a) allows judicial economy to replace justice; and

(b) denies access to the courts by permitting the desires and influence of corporations with deep pockets, and politically well-connected defendants, to trump the legal rights of the individual.

GM victims and BP victims deserve better!

N.B. – BP paid Feinberg Rozen, LLP a sum of $1.25 million per month to limit its liability (“administer the BP oil spill victims’ compensation fund”).

UPDATE (April 25, 2014): Plaintiffs File Motion to Hold Kenneth R. Feinberg, et al. Accountable for Financially Ruining Them

CLICK HERE TO SIGN THE PETITION FOR GM VICTIMS

CLICK HERE TO SIGN THE PETITION FOR BP VICTIMS

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The Gulf Coast Claims Facility Limits BP’s Liability and Guarantees the Oil Company’s Continued Operation in the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf Coast Claims Facility Limits BP’s Liability
and
Guarantees the Oil Company’s Continued Operation in the Gulf of Mexico

________________________

The Obama Administration Has Acquired a Vested Interest in
Ensuring the Financial Well-Being of BP

By Brian J. Donovan

August 23, 2010

INTRODUCTION

On June 16, 2010, President Obama announced that BP has agreed to set aside $20 billion to pay economic damage claims to individuals and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon incident.

President Obama stated, “This $20 billion will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored. It’s also important to emphasize this is not a cap.  The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them. BP has publicly pledged to make good on the claims that it owes to the people in the Gulf, and so the agreement we reached sets up a financial and legal framework to do it.

Another important element is that this $20 billion fund will not be controlled by either BP or by the government. It will be put in a escrow account, administered by an impartial, independent third party. So if you or your business has suffered an economic loss as a result of this spill, you’ll be eligible to file a claim for part of this $20 billion. This fund does not supersede either individuals’ rights or states’ rights to present claims in court. BP will also continue to be liable for the environmental disaster it has caused, and we’re going to continue to work to make sure that they address it.”

BP and the Obama administration agreed to appoint Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington lawyer and Democratic Party supporter who administered the claims process for victims of 9/11, to run the independent claims process known as the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).

As of August 19, 2010, approximately four months after the date of the Deepwater Horizon incident, BP had made 153,650 payments to claimants for a total amount of $389 million. This equates to an average of only $2,532 per payment!

Effective August 23, 2010, GCCF will be the only authorized organization managing individual and business claims related to the Deepwater Horizon incident. GCCF is intended to replace BP’s claims facility for individuals and businesses. Feinberg alleges GCCF is structured to be compliant with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA).

This article briefly addresses: (a) how GCCF limits BP’s liability via the systematic postponement, reduction or denial of claims against BP; (b) how GCCF guarantees BP’s continued long-term operation in the offshore Gulf of Mexico E&P sector; and (c) why GCCF is not necessary to ensure that victims of the BP oil spill are fully compensated for incurred damages.

HOW GCCF LIMITS BP’S LIABILITY VIA THE SYSTEMATIC POSTPONEMENT,
REDUCTION OR DENIAL OF CLAIMS AGAINST BP

GCCF was meant to replace the inefficient claims process which BP had established to fulfill its obligations as a responsible party pursuant to OPA. Unfortunately, in lieu of making oil spill victims whole, GCCF’s primary goal appears to be the limitation of BP’s liability via the systematic postponement,  reduction or denial of claims against BP.

GCCF will limit BP’s liability via circumventing OPA as follows:

Proximate Causation
The GCCF Protocol states, “The GCCF will only pay for harm or damage that is proximately caused by the Spill. The GCCF will take into account, among other things, geographic proximity, nature of industry, and dependence upon injured natural resources.”

GCCF’s requirement that a claimant has the increased burden of proving “proximate causation” between his or her damages and the Deepwater Horizon incident is a clear violation of OPA. Furthermore, paying for damages based on geographic proximity and nature of industry is also a clear violation of OPA.

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 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)

Single Emergency Advance Payment
The GCCF Protocol provides, “Emergency Advance Payment applications may be submitted during the period August 23 ‐ November 23, 2010. After that date, applications for Emergency Advance Payments will no longer be accepted.”

A single six-month emergency advance payment for lost income is in violation of OPA. Moreover, the lack of a procedure for the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages beyond 90 days, as required by 33 U.S.C. § 2705, is also in violation of OPA.

The OPA specifically provides for interim partial payments. “The responsible party shall establish a procedure for the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages. 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.” See 33 U.S.C. § 2705(a).  The fact that a single payment does not preclude recovery by the claimant for future damages demonstrates that the legislative intent of Congress was for the responsible party to pay a series of partial claims in order to ensure that victims of the oil spill are fully compensated. Each of these partial claims would be paid after the date on which the claimant discovers damages resulting from the oil spill.

Single Final Settlement
A single final settlement payment is in violation of OPA.

OPA 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.” See 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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2715(b)(2)

Period of Limitations
A limitation that no claim may be submitted to the GCCF “more than three years after the date the Protocol becomes operative,” is in violation of OPA.

Under OPA, an action for damages shall be barred unless the action is brought within 3 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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2717(f)(1)(A)

The damages suffered by victims of the BP oil gusher will be enormous and on-going. The livelihoods of all persons whose businesses rely on the natural resources of the Gulf Coast are at risk. Commercial fishermen, oyster harvesters, shrimpers, and  businesses involved, directly or indirectly, in processing and packaging for the seafood industry will experience the end of a way of life that, in many cases, has been passed down from one generation to the next.

It is too early to calculate the economic damages for many potential claimants. GCCF’s “take it or leave it” final settlement requires a financially stressed victim to file a claim before the individual or business knows, and is able to corroborate, the full extent of the damages incurred as a result of the oil spill.

More importantly, how can a person predict the long-term health effects of his or her exposure to the oil? The benzene in spilled oil can cause leukemia and lymphoma which may not be diagnosed for several years after the date the GCCF Protocol becomes operative.

Claims Procedure
Under OPA, claims for damages must be presented first to the responsible party. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(a). 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.” 33 U.S.C. § 2701(3). In the event that a claim for damages is not paid by the responsible party within 90 days, the claimant may elect to commence an action in court against the responsible party or to present the claim to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

The GCCF Protocol is ambiguous as to when the 90-day OPA clock for payment starts. The GCCF Protocol states, “Whether or not a claim has been presented shall be governed by OPA and applicable law.” Moreover, GCCF requires that every claimant who has a pending claim with BP will have to refile his or her claim on an 18-page claims form. Does this refiling restart the 90-day clock? What if a claimant fails to refile his or her claim? GCCF is meant to facilitate settlement. It is not meant to confuse claimants or incite litigation as a result of an intentionally misleading claims procedure.

Waiver of Right to Sue
GCCF’s requirement that the claimant sign a general release of all rights the claimant may have against BP in order to receive the final settlement is in violation of OPA.

OPA 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.” See 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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2715(b)(2).

Partial payments, including a partial “final settlement” payment, do not preclude recovery by the claimant for damages not reflected in the paid or settled partial claim. If the claimant must sign a general release of all rights the claimant may have against BP in order to receive this partial “final settlement” payment, this required GCCF waiver of the right to sue by the claimant is in violation of OPA.

HOW GCCF GUARANTEES BP’S CONTINUED LONG-TERM OPERATION
IN THE OFFSHORE GULF OF MEXICO E&P SECTOR

On June 16, 2010, President Obama announced that BP has agreed to set aside $20 billion to pay economic damage claims to individuals and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon incident. The White House press release stated, “BP will provide assurance for these commitments by setting aside $20 billion in U.S. assets.”

BP created the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust on August 6, 2010. The Trust Agreement states that BP “has unknown potential liabilities under federal, state and local law for damages arising from or related to the oil spill caused by the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico (the “Oil Spill”), including claims under the Oil Pollution Act, natural resource damages and related costs (including assessment costs), state and local government response costs and certain other claims for damages.”

The Trust Agreement further provides, “To secure the payment and performance of its obligations to make the contributions to the Trust hereunder, BP hereby agrees to grant, convey, and/or assign to the Trust first priority perfected security interests in production payments pertaining to BP’s U.S. oil and natural gas production (“Production Payments”) (which Production Payments shall be issued and held in a newly formed limited liability company subsidiary of BP that shall have no business or operations other than holding such Production Payments).”

BP will not set aside $20 billion in U.S. assets as collateral. The collateral to secure BP’s performance of its obligations to pay damages related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be in the form of future production payments pertaining to BP’s U.S. oil and natural gas production. In essence, the Obama administration has chosen to be BP’s joint venture partner by allowing future drilling revenues to be used as collateral for the GCCF escrow account!

Adding insult to injury, on July 27, 2010, BP revealed that it is taking a charge of $32.2 billion (and thereby claiming a $9.9 billion tax credit) to reflect the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including costs to date of $2.9 billion for the response and a charge of $29.3 billion for future costs, including the funding of the $20 billion escrow fund.

Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), BP faces fines of up to $4,300 for each barrel spilled. Furthermore, pursuant to Section 2702 of OPA, BP would be required to pay royalties (18.75%) owed to the federal government for the oil that gushed from the well. BP’s liability, based upon estimates for oil containment, collection and clean-up, GCCF, and penalties and fines should total between $66.3 billion and $90.2 billion. Given that BP’s financial health and its ability to meet its obligations under GCCF are now tied together, CWA fines and OPA royalty payments for each barrel of oil spilled will most likely be kept to a minimum. Ironically, the federal government has acquired a vested interest in ensuring the financial well-being of BP.

WHY GCCF IS NOT NECESSARY TO ENSURE THAT VICTIMS OF THE BP OIL SPILL
ARE FULLY COMPENSATED FOR INCURRED DAMAGES

Limitations on Liability for Damages under OPA
Pursuant to OPA, for an offshore facility the total of the liability of a responsible party and any removal costs incurred by, or on behalf of, the responsible party, with respect to each incident shall not exceed the total of all removal costs plus $75,000,000. 33 U.S.C. § 2704

However, this limit on liability “does not apply if the incident was proximately caused by gross negligence, willful misconduct of, or the violation of an applicable federal safety, construction, or operating regulation by, the responsible party, an agent or employee of the responsible party, or a person acting pursuant to a contractual relationship with the responsible party.” 33 U.S.C. §§ 2704(c)(1)(A) and (B)

Given BP’s documented violation of federal safety regulations aboard the Deepwater Horizon, e.g., using an improper cementing technique to seal the well, failing to adequately test and maintain blowout prevention equipment and drilling deeper than BP’s federal permit allowed, there will be no limitation on BP’s liability.

Presentation and the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund
Under OPA, claims for damages must be presented first to the responsible party. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(a). In the event that a claim for damages is not paid by the responsible party within 90 days, the claimant may elect to commence an action in court against the responsible party or to present the claim to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (the “Fund”). 33 U.S.C. § 2713(c)

The Fund is a federally administered trust fund that may be used to pay costs related to federal and state oil spill removal activities; costs incurred by federal, state, and Indian tribe trustees for natural resource damage assessments; and unpaid damages claims. 33 U.S.C. § 2712

The Fund is financed by a per-barrel tax on crude oil received at United States refineries, and on petroleum products imported into the U.S. for consumption. The maximum amount of money that may be withdrawn from the Fund is $1 billion per incident. 26 U.S.C. § 9509(c)(2)(A)

United States Attorney General
Currently, the Fund may not receive advances from the United States Treasury, as its authority to borrow expired December 31, 1994. The United States Attorney General, however, may commence an action on behalf of the Fund, against a responsible party, to recover any money paid by the Fund to any claimant pursuant to OPA. 33 U.S.C. § 2715(c)

Loan Program
Moreover, pursuant to OPA, the President shall establish a loan program under the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to provide interim assistance to fishermen and aquaculture producer claimants during the claims procedure. A loan may be made only to a fisherman or aquaculture producer that: (a) has incurred damages for which claims are authorized under OPA; (b) has made a claim pursuant to OPA that is pending; and (c) has not received an interim payment for the amount of the claim, or part thereof, that is pending. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(f)

No Need for GCCF
There is no need for GCCF. A victim may merely present a claim for damages to BP and wait 90 days. If BP does not pay the claim, the victim may present the claim to the Fund. The Fund could either pay the victim or provide a temporary loan to the victim and then the U.S. Attorney General may commence an action on behalf of the Fund against BP and collect the amount from BP. “Any person, including the 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.” 33 U.S.C. § 2715

The Litigation Option
Proponents of the BP claims process and GCCF routinely ask, “But the GCCF does not prohibit victims from rejecting the lump-sum payment in the hopes of attaining a larger settlement through litigation, correct?”

This is true if the victims have not already starved to death. The BP claims process has been a delaying tactic. Some claimants have already been waiting for over 90 days because BP has placed their claims on hold. It is doubtful GCCF will be any different after Feinberg takes over claims management on August 23rd. The purpose of GCCF is to limit BP’s liability, not to fully compensate victims as expeditiously as possible.

Granted, litigation would be time consuming. However, the lawsuits would force BP to spend a great deal of management’s time (during the discovery process) and money (legal fees). The suits would most likely be settled out of court but the difference would be that the victims would have more control of the process. With GCCF, victims are basically relegated to wasting precious time begging and pleading for compensation from Feinberg.

CONCLUSION

It was not the legislative intent of Congress for OPA to limit an oil spill victim’s right to seek full compensation from the responsible party. Unfortunately, GCCF, with the complete political and financial support of the Obama administration but without any legal authority for doing so, circumvents many of the rights provided to oil spill victims under OPA. The fact that future production payments pertaining to BP’s U.S. oil and natural gas production, rather than hard U.S. assets, are being used as collateral by BP guarantees BP’s continued long-term operation in the offshore Gulf of Mexico E&P sector. Ironically, the federal government has acquired a vested interest in ensuring the financial well-being of BP.

Fortunately, there is no need for GCCF. A victim may merely present a claim for damages to BP and wait 90 days. If BP does not pay the claim, the victim may present the claim to the Fund. The Fund could either pay the victim the amount owed or provide a temporary loan to the victim and then the U.S. Attorney General may commence an action on behalf of the Fund against BP and collect the amount from BP. “Any person, including the 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.” 33 U.S.C. § 2715

Each individual claimant/potential plaintiff who has suffered damages as a result of the BP oil spill of April, 2010 should immediately seek competent legal counsel to directly represent his or her interests. Most attorneys should be willing to represent claimants on a contingent fee basis. A contingent fee of seven to ten percent would be money well spent. Given that the damages suffered by the vast majority of individual potential plaintiffs as a result of the BP oil spill of April, 2010 are potentially so great and will be on-going, class treatment may not be necessary to permit effective litigation of the claim. Here, where the amount of damages suffered by the individual is so great, the filing of an individual lawsuit should be economically feasible and may be in the best interests of the plaintiff. This decision should be made by the potential plaintiff only after a thorough consultation with his or her legal counsel.

APPENDICES

References
Adams, Mike, “First Amendment suspended in the Gulf of Mexico as spill cover-up goes Orwellian,” NaturalNews (July 3, 2010), available at: http://www.naturalnews.com/029130_Gulf_of_Mexico_censorship.html

Bhattacharyya, S., P.L. Klerks, and J.A. Nyman. 2003. Toxicity to freshwater organisms from oils and oil spill chemical treatments in laboratory microcosms. Environmental Pollution 122:205-215.

Chokkavelu, Anand, “The BP Stat That Will Shock You,” Motley Fool (July 9, 2010), available at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38165954/ns/business-motley_fool/

Clean Water Act

Coleman, Leigh and Younglai, Rachelle, “Spill puts Obama’s oil fund chief on hostile turf,” Reuters (July 27, 2010)

EPA: http://www.epa.gov/oem/content/lawsregs/opaover.htm

Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 23(h), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Fisher, Daniel and Hawkins, Asher, “BP’s Legal Blowout,” Forbes.com (July 14, 2010)

Greenwald, Glenn, “The BP/Government police state,” Salon (July 5, 2010), available at: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/07/05/bp/index.html

Hals, Tom, “Analysis: BP investors face tough road in court fights,” Reuters (July 16, 2010)

Hudson, Kris and Baskin, Brian, “Fears Mount That Fund Won’t Cover All Damages,” The Wall Street Journal (July 15, 2010)

Kindy, Kimberly, “Recovery effort falls vastly short of BP’s promises,” Washington Post (July 6, 2010), available at:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/05/AR2010070502937.html

Kirby, Brendan, “BP, federal government remain silent on when company will fund Gulf oil spill account,” Press-Register (July 26, 2010)

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MMS: http://www.mms.gov/

Murtaugh, Dan, “Attorney General Eric Holder says he’ll try to address oil spill claims concerns,” Press-Register (July 15, 2010)

Murtaugh, Dan, “Feinberg says BP hasn’t put money in escrow account yet,” Press-Register (July 24, 2010)

National Contingency Plan

NOAA: http://www.noaa.gov/

Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Peters, Jeremy W., “Efforts to Limit the Flow of Spill News,” The New York Times (June 9, 2010)

Philips, Matthew, “BP’s Photo Blockade of the Gulf Oil Spill,” Newsweek (May 26, 2010), available at: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/05/26/the-missing-oil-spill-photos.html

Schoof, Renee and Bolstad, Erika, “BP well may be spewing 100,000 barrels a day, scientist says,” McClatchy Newspapers (June 7, 2010), available at: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/06/07/95467/bp-well-may-be-spewing.html

Schoof, Renee, “Scientists propose big experiment to study Gulf oil spill,” McClatchy Newspapers (July 11, 20100, available at:
http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/07/11/1725271/scientists-propose-big-experiment.html

Schwartz, John, “More Delicate Diplomacy for the Overseer of the Compensation Fund,” The New York Times (July 16, 2010)

Stier, Byron G., “Ken Feinberg Compensation for Administering BP Fund – A Problem and Possible Solution,” available at: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/mass_tort_litigation/2010/07/ken-feinberg-compensation-for-administering-bp-fund-a-problem-and-possible-solution.html

USA Today: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2010/05/how-responsible-is-us-government-for-gulf-oil-spill/

USCG: http://www.uscg.mil/

Walsh, Bryan, “The Oil Spill and the Perils of Losing Trust,” Time (July 7, 2010), available at: http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2010/07/07/the-oil-spill-and-the-perils-of-losing-trust/

 

Further Reading
Is The Gulf Coast Claims Facility in Violation of The Oil Pollution Act of 1990?

Is the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund Legitimate?

Will Victims of the BP Oil Gusher Also Be Victims of Class Action Lawsuits and the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund?

BP’s Strategy to Limit Liability in Regard to Its Gulf Oil Gusher

Why BP Does Not Want an Accurate Measurement of the Gulf Oil Spill

The Oil Pollution Act Provides for the Federalization of the BP Oil Spill

BP is Not the Only Responsible Party

BP Oil Spill of April, 2010: Why Class Action Lawsuits May Not be in the Best Interests of Potential Plaintiffs

 

About the Author
Brian J. Donovan is an attorney and marine engineer with thirty-five years of international business experience.

Mr. Donovan, a member of The Florida Bar, The U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida and The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, holds a J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law (where he was recipient of the “Global Law & Practice Award” as the outstanding graduate in the areas of International Law and International Business Law) and a B.S., with honors, in Marine/Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering from the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

Mr. Donovan, with deep family roots in southern Louisiana, has first-hand knowledge of the catastrophic devastation of the Louisiana Gulf Coast caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He fully appreciates that the damage caused by Katrina and Rita may pale in comparison to the massive and potentially unprecedented environmental and economic impact of the BP oil gusher of April, 2010.

Is The Gulf Coast Claims Facility in Violation of The Oil Pollution Act of 1990?

Is The Gulf Coast Claims Facility in Violation of The Oil Pollution Act of 1990?

By Brian J. Donovan

August 10, 2010

INTRODUCTION

On June 16, 2010 President Obama announced that BP has agreed to set aside $20 billion to pay economic damage claims to people and businesses that have been affected by the BP oil gusher. President Obama stated, “This $20 billion will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored. It’s also important to emphasize this is not a cap.  The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them. BP has publicly pledged to make good on the claims that it owes to the people in the Gulf, and so the agreement we reached sets up a financial and legal framework to do it.

Another important element is that this $20 billion fund will not be controlled by either BP or by the government. It will be put in a escrow account, administered by an impartial, independent third party. So if you or your business has suffered an economic loss as a result of this spill, you’ll be eligible to file a claim for part of this $20 billion. This fund does not supersede either individuals’ rights or states’ rights to present claims in court. BP will also continue to be liable for the environmental disaster it has caused, and we’re going to continue to work to make sure that they address it.”

BP and the Obama administration agreed to appoint Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington lawyer and Democratic Party supporter who administered the claims process for victims of 9/11, to run the independent claims process known as the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF). The GCCF is also commonly referred to as the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund (BPOSVCF).

This article addresses the issue of whether the proposed GCCF protocol is in violation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA).

THE OIL POLLUTION ACT OF 1990

Elements of Liability
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)

Covered Damages
Under OPA, “damages” means “damages specified in 33 U.S.C. § 2702(b), and includes the cost of assessing these damages.” 33 U.S.C. § 2701(5)

The damages to people and businesses specified in 33 U.S.C. § 2702(b) include, but are not limited to, the following:

(A) Real or Personal Property
Damages for injury to, or economic losses resulting from destruction of, real or personal property, which shall be recoverable by a claimant who owns or leases that property. 33 U.S.C. § 2702(b)(2)(B)

(B) Subsistence Use
Damages for loss of subsistence use of natural resources, which shall be recoverable by any claimant who so uses natural resources which have been injured, destroyed, or lost, without regard to the ownership or management of the resources. 33 U.S.C. § 2702(b)(2)(C)

Under OPA, “natural resources” includes land, fish, wildlife, biota, air, water, ground water, drinking water supplies, and other such resources belonging to, managed by, held in trust by, appertaining to, or otherwise controlled by the United States (including the resources of the exclusive economic zone), any State or local government or Indian tribe, or any foreign government. 33 U.S.C. § 2701(20)

(C) Profits and Earning Capacity
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)

Partial Payment of Claims
Pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), “the responsible party shall establish a procedure for the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages. 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.” See 33 U.S.C. § 2705(a)

Period of Limitations
An action for damages under OPA shall be barred unless the action is brought within 3 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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2717(f)(1)(A)

Subrogation
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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2715(b)(2)

Interest
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 under the OPA.  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. However, if in any period a claimant is not paid due to reasons beyond the control of the responsible party or because it would not serve the interests of justice, no interest shall accrue during that period.

OPA Claims Procedure
Claims for damages must be presented first to the responsible party. 33 U.S.C. § 2713(a). Under OPA, 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.” 33 U.S.C. § 2701(3). In the event that a claim for damages is not paid by the responsible party within 90 days, the claimant may elect to commence an action in court against the responsible party or to present the claim to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

Loan Program
The President shall establish a loan program under the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to provide interim assistance to fishermen and aquaculture producer claimants during the claims procedure. A loan may be made only to a fisherman or aquaculture producer that: (a) has incurred damages for which claims are authorized under OPA; (b) has made a claim pursuant to OPA that is pending; and (c) has not received an interim payment for the amount of the claim, or part thereof, that is pending.

GCCF VIOLATIONS OF OPA

GCCF will operate for three years. Feinberg explains the compensation plan includes two components: a no-obligation six month emergency payment for lost income and a final lump-sum payment with acceptance of release for BP. A claim for the six month emergency payment must be made within 90 days from the day the well is capped. If claimants choose to accept the second and final GCCF offer, they waive any right to bring further court proceedings against BP.

Single Emergency Payment
A single six month emergency payment for lost income is in violation of OPA. Moreover, the lack of a procedure for the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages beyond 90 days, as required by 33 U.S.C. § 2705, is also in violation of OPA.

It was not the legislative intent of Congress for OPA to limit an oil spill victim’s right to seek full compensation from the responsible party.

The OPA specifically provides for interim partial payments. As noted above, “the responsible party shall establish a procedure for the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages. 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.” See 33 U.S.C. § 2705(a).  The fact that a single payment does not preclude recovery by the claimant for future damages demonstrates that the legislative intent of Congress was for the responsible party to pay a series of partial claims in order to ensure that victims of the oil spill are fully compensated. Each of these partial claims would be paid after the date on which the claimant discovers damages resulting from the oil spill.

Final Settlement
A single final settlement payment is in violation of OPA.

It was not the legislative intent of Congress for OPA to limit an oil spill victim’s right to seek full compensation from the responsible party.

OPA 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.” See 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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2715(b)(2)

Period of Limitations
A limitation that no claim may be submitted to the GCCF “more than three years after the date the Protocol becomes operative,” is in violation of OPA.

Under OPA, an action for damages shall be barred unless the action is brought within 3 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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2717(f)(1)(A)

The damages suffered by victims of the BP oil gusher will be enormous and on-going. The livelihoods of all persons whose businesses rely on the natural resources of the Gulf Coast are at risk. Commercial fishermen, oyster harvesters, shrimpers, and  businesses involved, directly or indirectly, in processing and packaging for the seafood industry will experience the end of a way of life that, in many cases, has been passed down from one generation to the next.

It is too early to calculate the damages for many potential claimants. GCCF’s “take it or leave it” final settlement requires a financially stressed victim to file a claim before the individual or business knows, and is able to corroborate, the full extent of the damages incurred as a result of the oil spill.

For example, many businesses are concerned it will be difficult, if not impossible, to forecast the long-term recovery of the crab and shrimp populations, or how quickly U.S. consumers will re-embrace Gulf seafood, among other things. So far, economic damage estimates vary widely. Greater New Orleans Inc., the economic-development agency for the 10-parish area, published preliminary estimates that the region’s fishing industry stands to suffer annual losses ranging from $900 million to $3.3 billion.

Gary Bauer, president of Pontchartrain Blue Crab Inc., a seafood wholesaler and processor on Salt Bayou east of New Orleans, said his sales of blue crab and shrimp have dropped to 20% of their normal $8 million-a-year pace. In addition, foreign seafood suppliers are moving in on his network of grocers, restaurants and other buyers, further denting his long-term prospects. “Are we going to have a crab season next year, and are there going to be fishermen who will fish next year?” Mr. Bauer said. “How does BP reimburse for that? I spent 10 years of my life building a brand, and they destroyed it.”

Wayne Hess, manager of American Seafood Inc., a processor and wholesaler in New Orleans, said his sales were down roughly 30% from their annual average of $5 million to $7 million. “How am I supposed to project my losses not knowing how all of the different species we carry will be affected in the next year to five years?” he said. “The female crabs that are mating right now don’t drop their eggs until October or December. Those larvae may not make it.”

More importantly, how can a person predict the long-term health effects of his or her exposure to the oil? The benzene in spilled oil can cause leukemia and lymphoma which may not be diagnosed for several years after the date the GCCF Protocol becomes operative.

Waiver of Right to Sue
GCCF’s requirement that the claimant sign a general release of all rights the claimant may have against BP in order to receive the final settlement is in violation of OPA.

It was not the legislative intent of Congress for OPA to limit an oil spill victim’s right to seek full compensation from the responsible party.

OPA 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.” See 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. See 33 U.S.C. § 2715(b)(2).

Partial payments, including a partial “final settlement” payment, do not preclude recovery by the claimant for damages not reflected in the paid or settled partial claim. If the claimant must sign a general release of all rights the claimant may have against BP in order to receive this partial “final settlement” payment, this required GCCF waiver of the right to sue by the claimant is in violation of OPA.

GCCF is an attempt to buy peace by overwhelming potential claimants/plaintiffs with “easy” money. Companies have tried this before, with mixed success. Asbestos manufacturers failed miserably when they negotiated a global settlement with plaintiff lawyers in the early 1990s under which they’d pay out $300 million to injured workers in exchange for having cases of workers who were exposed, but not sick, valued at zero. The Supreme Court rejected the settlement in 1997 because it bound future claimants to terms they had no part in negotiating. Similarly in this case, claimants have no way to predict or negotiate the full extent of the damages, including the long-term health effects, incurred as a result of the oil spill.

Intentional and Systematic Delay of Payment
The intentional and systematic delay of payment of claims that has been employed by BP is in violation of OPA. There is no reason to believe that GCCF will be any different.

As of August 10, 2010, BP has made 146,000 payments to claimants for a total amount of $330 million. This equates to an average of only $2,260 per payment!

“Delay, deny, defend” is a strategy commonly employed by unscrupulous insurance companies. The strategy currently being employed by BP is similar: “Delay payment, starve claimant, and offer claimant five to ten percent of all damages to which the claimant is entitled. If the financially ruined claimant rejects the final settlement offer, he or she may sue.”

Four Tactics Currently Used by BP to Delay Payments
(1) Providing documentation that is acceptable to BP has been a significant challenge for claimants so far. Arbitrarily requesting unnecessary additional corroborating documentation after a claim has been filed is merely one tactic BP uses to delay payment to claimants.

(2) A second tactic employed by BP is to delay a claim by arguing “the oil is not physically at the claimant’s location.” This is in violation of OPA. In the case of an OPA claim, the claimant is simply required to demonstrate that the damages incurred resulted from the BP oil release. See 33 U.S.C. § 2702(a)

(3) A third delaying tactic is a requirement by BP for claimants who seek lost profits to demonstrate that their loss was caused by damage or loss to property or resources “that are used by the Claimant.” This is in violation of OPA. 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” are recoverable by any claimant against the responsible party under OPA. 33 U.S.C. § 2702(b)(2)(E). Moreover, “the responsible party is liable for damages that result from such incident.” See 33 U.S.C. § 2702(a)

(4) Furthermore, a limitation that payment on claims will be reduced by payments received from collateral sources is inconsistent with the liability of a responsible party under OPA. In no event should a collateral source limitation interfere with the expeditious and complete recovery by any individual or business claimant.

Appeals Process
A panel of three judges will be available to hear appeals of the GCCF administrator’s decisions. The panel will review claims that are denied or offers deemed to be insufficient by a claimant.

Under the proposed GCCF protocol, a claimant only has seven days to appeal a decision to the Appeals Board. This is insufficient time and in violation of OPA.

Interest
Pursuant to OPA, 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. However, if in any period a claimant is not paid due to reasons beyond the control of the responsible party, no interest shall accrue during that period. Here, GCCF will argue that the “insufficient documentation” submitted by the claimant was beyond BP’s control.

Kenneth Feinberg has promised to pay claims as expeditiously as possible. Therefore, (a) interest should to be factored into the total amount of damages filed by the claimant. This is interest from the date of financial loss to the date on which the claim is presented; and (b) a claim should also stipulate that GCCF will pay a per diem penalty if the claim is not paid within 30 days from the date on which the claim is presented.

CONCLUSION

It was not the legislative intent of Congress for OPA to limit an oil spill victim’s right to seek full compensation from the responsible party.

The proposed GCCF protocol is in violation of OPA for the following seven reasons:
(a) a single six month emergency payment for lost income;
(b) a single final settlement payment;
(c) a limitation that no claim may be submitted to the GCCF “more than three years after the date the Protocol becomes operative;”
(d) GCCF’s requirement that the claimant sign a general release of all rights the claimant may have against BP in order to receive the final settlement;
(e) BP’s current intentional and systematic delay of payment of claims which GCCF will most likely continue;
(f) insufficient time to appeal a GCCF decision; and
(g) GCCF’s failure to provide for interest on the amount paid in satisfaction of a claim and penalties for delayed payment of a claim.

Memories fade with the passage of time. If GCCF is merely a delaying tactic on the part of BP to postpone the day of financial judgment, lawsuits should be filed by BP’s victims and witnesses should be deposed as soon as possible. In the absence of a well-funded and transparent GCCF that fully compensates oil spill victims in an expeditious manner, postponing litigation will only benefit BP.

APPENDICES

References
Adams, Mike, “First Amendment suspended in the Gulf of Mexico as spill cover-up goes Orwellian,” NaturalNews (July 3, 2010), available at: http://www.naturalnews.com/029130_Gulf_of_Mexico_censorship.html

Bhattacharyya, S., P.L. Klerks, and J.A. Nyman. 2003. Toxicity to freshwater organisms from oils and oil spill chemical treatments in laboratory microcosms. Environmental Pollution 122:205-215.

Chokkavelu, Anand, “The BP Stat That Will Shock You,” Motley Fool (July 9, 2010), available at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38165954/ns/business-motley_fool/

Clean Water Act

Coleman, Leigh and Younglai, Rachelle, “Spill puts Obama’s oil fund chief on hostile turf,” Reuters (July 27, 2010)

EPA: http://www.epa.gov/oem/content/lawsregs/opaover.htm

Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 23(h), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Fisher, Daniel and Hawkins, Asher, “BP’s Legal Blowout,” Forbes.com (July 14, 2010)

Greenwald, Glenn, “The BP/Government police state,” Salon (July 5, 2010), available at: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/07/05/bp/index.html

Hals, Tom, “Analysis: BP investors face tough road in court fights,” Reuters (July 16, 2010)

Hudson, Kris and Baskin, Brian, “Fears Mount That Fund Won’t Cover All Damages,” The Wall Street Journal (July 15, 2010)

Kindy, Kimberly, “Recovery effort falls vastly short of BP’s promises,” Washington Post (July 6, 2010), available at:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/05/AR2010070502937.html

Kirby, Brendan, “BP, federal government remain silent on when company will fund Gulf oil spill account,” Press-Register (July 26, 2010)

Lustgarten, Abrahm, “Chemicals Meant To Break Up BP Oil Spill Present New Environmental Concerns,” ProPublica (April 30, 2010), available at: http://www.propublica.org/article/bp-gulf-oil-spill-dispersants-0430

MMS: http://www.mms.gov/

Murtaugh, Dan, “Attorney General Eric Holder says he’ll try to address oil spill claims concerns,” Press-Register (July 15, 2010)

Murtaugh, Dan, “Feinberg says BP hasn’t put money in escrow account yet,” Press-Register (July 24, 2010)

National Contingency Plan

NOAA: http://www.noaa.gov/

Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Peters, Jeremy W., “Efforts to Limit the Flow of Spill News,” The New York Times (June 9, 2010)

Philips, Matthew, “BP’s Photo Blockade of the Gulf Oil Spill,” Newsweek (May 26, 2010), available at: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/05/26/the-missing-oil-spill-photos.html

Schoof, Renee and Bolstad, Erika, “BP well may be spewing 100,000 barrels a day, scientist says,” McClatchy Newspapers (June 7, 2010), available at: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/06/07/95467/bp-well-may-be-spewing.html

Schoof, Renee, “Scientists propose big experiment to study Gulf oil spill,” McClatchy Newspapers (July 11, 20100, available at:
http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/07/11/1725271/scientists-propose-big-experiment.html

Schwartz, John, “More Delicate Diplomacy for the Overseer of the Compensation Fund,” The New York Times (July 16, 2010)

Stier, Byron G., “Ken Feinberg Compensation for Administering BP Fund – A Problem and Possible Solution,” available at: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/mass_tort_litigation/2010/07/ken-feinberg-compensation-for-administering-bp-fund-a-problem-and-possible-solution.html

USA Today: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2010/05/how-responsible-is-us-government-for-gulf-oil-spill/

USCG: http://www.uscg.mil/

Walsh, Bryan, “The Oil Spill and the Perils of Losing Trust,” Time (July 7, 2010), available at: http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2010/07/07/the-oil-spill-and-the-perils-of-losing-trust/
 

 

Further Reading
The Gulf Coast Claims Facility Limits BP’s Liability and Guarantees the Oil Company’s Continued Operation in the Gulf of Mexico

Is the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund Legitimate?

Will Victims of the BP Oil Gusher Also Be Victims of Class Action Lawsuits and the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund?

BP’s Strategy to Limit Liability in Regard to Its Gulf Oil Gusher

Why BP Does Not Want an Accurate Measurement of the Gulf Oil Spill

The Oil Pollution Act Provides for the Federalization of the BP Oil Spill

BP is Not the Only Responsible Party

BP Oil Spill of April, 2010: Why Class Action Lawsuits May Not be in the Best Interests of Potential Plaintiffs
 

 

About the Author
Brian J. Donovan is an attorney and marine engineer with thirty-five years of international business experience.

Mr. Donovan, a member of The Florida Bar, The U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida and The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, holds a J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law (where he was recipient of the “Global Law & Practice Award” as the outstanding graduate in the areas of International Law and International Business Law) and a B.S., with honors, in Marine/Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering from the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

Mr. Donovan, with deep family roots in southern Louisiana, has first-hand knowledge of the catastrophic devastation of the Louisiana Gulf Coast caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He fully appreciates that the damage caused by Katrina and Rita may pale in comparison to the massive and potentially unprecedented environmental and economic impact of the BP oil gusher of April, 2010.

Will Victims of the BP Oil Gusher Also Be Victims of Class Action Lawsuits and the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund?

Will Victims of the BP Oil Gusher Also Be Victims of Class Action Lawsuits
and the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund?

By Brian J. Donovan

July 16, 2010

INTRODUCTION

The question is whether victims of the BP oil gusher will have to pay thrice: (a) once for the gusher, the environmental and economic damages of which will devastate their way of life and leave many in financial ruin; (b) again for daring to demand justice, which will consume their time, energy and hopes for years to come if they are held hostage by class action lawsuits; and (c) a third time by being mislead and undercompensated by the “BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund (BPOSVCF).”

THE BP OIL GUSHER

The damages suffered by victims of the BP oil gusher will be enormous and on-going. The livelihoods of all persons whose businesses rely on the natural resources of the Gulf Coast are at risk. Commercial fishermen, oyster harvesters, shrimpers, and  businesses involved, directly or indirectly, in processing and packaging for the seafood industry will experience the end of a way of life that, in many cases, has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), for an offshore facility the total of the liability of a responsible party and any removal costs incurred by, or on behalf of, the responsible party, with respect to each incident shall not exceed the total of all removal costs plus $75,000,000.

However, this limit on liability “does not apply if the incident was proximately caused by gross negligence, willful misconduct of, or the violation of an applicable federal safety, construction, or operating regulation by, the responsible party, an agent or employee of the responsible party, or a person acting pursuant to a contractual relationship with the responsible party.”

OPA broadened the scope of damages (i.e., costs) for which an oil spiller would be liable. Under OPA, a responsible party is liable for all cleanup costs incurred, not only by a government entity, but also by a private party. In addition to cleanup costs, OPA significantly increased the range of liable damages to include the following:

• injury to natural resources,
• loss of personal property (and resultant economic losses),
• loss of subsistence use of natural resources,
• lost revenues resulting from destruction of property or natural resource injury,
• lost profits resulting from property loss or natural resource injury, and
• costs of providing extra public services during or after spill response.

Given BP’s documented violation of federal safety regulations aboard the Deepwater Horizon, e.g., using an improper cementing technique to seal the well, failing to adequately test and maintain blowout prevention equipment and drilling deeper than BP’s federal permit allowed, there will be no limitation on BP’s liability. (Oil Pollution Act of 1990, 33 U.S.C. 2704).

Furthermore, BP may be liable to the United States and to Louisiana for damages resulting from lost royalties. Pursuant to Section 2702 of OPA, “Notwithstanding any other provision or rule of law, and subject to the provisions of this Act, each 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 specified in subsection (b) of this section that result from such incident…”, including revenue losses such as “taxes, royalties, rents, fees, or net profit shares due to the injury, destruction, or loss of real property, personal property, or natural resources, which shall be recoverable by the Government of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision thereof.” (Oil Pollution Act of 1990, 33 U.S.C. 2702(b)(2)(D)).

BP also faces uncapped liability under a little-known Clean Water Act (CWA) civil damages provision.

Pursuant to Section 1321 of the CWA, “Any person who is the owner, operator, or person in charge of any vessel, onshore facility, or offshore facility from which oil or a hazardous substance is discharged in violation of paragraph (3), shall be subject to a civil penalty in an amount up to $25,000 per day of violation or an amount up to $1,000 per barrel of oil or unit of reportable quantity of hazardous substances discharged. In any case in which a violation of paragraph (3) was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct of a person described in subparagraph (A), the person shall be subject to a civil penalty of not less than $100,000, and not more than $3,000 per barrel of oil or unit of reportable quantity of hazardous substance discharged.” (Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1321).

Under the CWA, the basic fine is $1,100 per barrel spilled. But the penalty can rise to $4,300 a barrel if a federal court rules the spill resulted from gross negligence. As noted above, the fines were originally set at $1,000 to $3,000 but that was raised in 2004 to keep up with inflation. Accordingly, the number of barrels of oil being released from the well is going to be critical.

If the government pursues civil fines based on the volume of oil spilled, it would take into consideration whether BP has made its best effort to mitigate the spill, its prior history of offenses, if any, and whether BP can bear the cost of fines, among other factors. BP received the third-largest criminal penalty, of $50 million, for an environmental offense in U.S. history for a Texas City refinery fire in 2005. BP subsidiaries remain under federal probation for prior offenses in Texas and Alaska.

As of July 16, 2010, regardless of whether you prefer to say “spill” or “gusher,” these are the numbers to consider:

Total Amount of Oil Released to Date: 4,675,000 barrels
Amount of Oil Recovered by BP to Date (via Containment Cap): 826,800 barrels
Oily Water Recovered (via Skimming): 792,857 barrels of oily water = 79,286 barrels of oil
Oil Consumed by Controlled Burns: 261,191 barrels
Total Amount of Unrecovered Oil in the Gulf of Mexico to Date: 3,507,743 barrels

In this case, “Barrels Spilled” means “Oil Consumed by Controlled Burns” + “Total Amount of Unrecovered Oil in the Gulf of Mexico” = 261,191 + 3,507,743 = 3,768,934 barrels of oil spilled.

Under the CWA alone, gross negligence penalties based upon 3,768,934 barrels of oil spilled would equal $16,206,416,200. This equates to a penalty of approximately $191 million per day. BP’s net profits in the first quarter of 2010 were approximately $6.7 million per day.

It is obvious why BP, despite having the ability to obtain a very accurate flow rate, does not want a more accurate oil spill measurement. It is also very obvious why BP does not want to collect a great deal of the oil spill. Since April 22, 2010, BP admits that its skimming operations have been able to recover only 792,857 barrels of oily water. This equates to collecting a total of only 79,286 barrels of oil from the Gulf of Mexico since April 22, 2010.

The federal government has abdicated its responsibility. Pursuant to OPA Section 4201, and given that the BP oil spill is a “discharge posing substantial threat to public health or welfare,” President Obama should have federalized the collection of the oil that is in the sea and the restoration of the coastal areas impacted by the oil. Both of these activities could be done without having to federalize the operational priority of stopping the flow of oil from the well.

The Obama administration has no intention of holding BP accountable under either OPA 90 or CWA. Under the CWA, BP faces fines of up to $4,300 for each barrel spilled. Furthermore, pursuant to Section 2702 of OPA 90, BP would be required to pay royalties (18.75%) owed to the federal government for the oil gushing from the well.

If the federal government intended to collect $4,300 and a royalty of 18.75% for each barrel spilled, it would:

(a) try to have at least a very rough estimate of the number of barrels gushing from the BP well. This estimate does not exist. From April 28th to May 27th, the official estimated flow rate was 5,000 bbl/day. This intentionally underestimated amount of oil being released from the BP well was from NOAA, not BP. NOAA fully supported, and continues to fully support, BP’s strategy to underestimate the amount of oil being released from the well. “I think the estimate at the time was, and remains, a reasonable estimate,” said Dr. Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator. “Having greater precision about the flow rate would not really help in any way. We would be doing the same things.”

(b) collect every barrel of oil that is released into the Gulf of Mexico before it reaches the marshes of Louisiana and the beaches of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. This would require stopping the use of dispersants to allow the oil to reach the surface and using tankers to collect the oil. To date, the federal government has allowed BP to use more than 1,840,000 gallons of oil dispersant.

An accurate measurement of the flow of oil and collection of the oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico could change the way people remember this gusher and their opinion of BP.  Once the leak is plugged and the oil is dispersed throughout the oceans of the world, who’s to say for certain whether BP’s oil well blowout gushed an average of 1,000 or 100,000 bbl/day of oil?

CLASS ACTION LAWSUITS

Teams of lawyers from across the country have descended on the Gulf Coast to file potential class-action lawsuits to recover damages suffered by the lead plaintiff(s) and absent class members as a result of the BP oil gusher.

A class action is a procedural device that permits one or more plaintiffs to file and prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of a larger group. The larger group consists of the class members who have suffered the same wrong at the hands of the defendant but who are too numerous for the court to adequately manage the lawsuit if each class member were required to be joined as named plaintiffs.

In order to proceed as a class action, the case must be “certified” as a class action: that is, a court must determine that the class action criteria set forth in Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have been met. A class certified under Rule 23(b)(3) is distinct from a class certified under Rule 23(b)(1) or (2) in one important way. If a Rule 23(b)(3) class is certified, “notice” of the class action must be sent to class members and an opportunity to “opt-out” of the class must be provided. In contrast, a class certified under Rule 23(b)(1) or (2) is “mandatory,” notice is not required, and no class member may opt-out. Despite requirements regarding the notice that must be given to absent class members, there is always the possibility that many class members will not receive notice of the litigation or that such notice will be insufficient to fully inform them of their rights, thereby depriving them of any meaningful opportunity to opt-out.

If a class is certified and the class representatives are unsuccessful, the absent class members‘ claims will be “legally obliterated” by the result of the litigation, even though they did not actively participate in the suit.

The Supreme Court has observed that, while the text of Rule 23 does not preclude certification in cases with significant damages, the drafters “had dominantly in mind” the use of the class action to aggregate relatively small individual recoveries into a case that would be worthwhile for an attorney to litigate.

Given that the damages suffered by the vast majority of individual potential plaintiffs as a result of the BP oil gusher are potentially so great, it should be economically feasible for many individual plaintiffs to file individual lawsuits. Here, class treatment would not be necessary to permit effective litigation of the claim. An individual lawsuit would: (a) ensure the plaintiff that the plaintiff’s attorney has his or her best interests in mind; (b) protect the plaintiff’s due process rights; (c) ensure that the plaintiff is not a victim of a class action case in which individual class members receive little or no compensation and only plaintiffs‘ counsel stand to benefit from class certification; (d) give the plaintiff control over the prosecution of the case; (e) allow the plaintiff to present evidence of exposure, injury, and damages relating to his or her particular claim; and (f) allow the plaintiff to make the decision on whether or when to settle.

BP Plc, the responsible party, is a powerful and well-funded defendant, does not lack imagination or incentive to pose innumerable legal barriers, and will aggressively assert its legal rights and otherwise use the law, the courts and the judicial system to serve its interests. BP can afford to stall, and actually benefits from delay, but its victims cannot afford to wait for years to be fully compensated for their losses.

Victims of the BP oil gusher who have suffered significant losses should dare to demand justice by immediately seeking competent legal counsel, filing individual lawsuits, and actively participating in the litigation of their claims.

BP OIL SPILL VICTIM COMPENSATION FUND

On June 16, 2010 President Obama announced that BP has agreed to set aside $20 billion to pay economic damage claims to people and businesses that have been affected by the BP oil gusher. President Obama stated, “This $20 billion will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored. It’s also important to emphasize this is not a cap.  The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them. BP has publicly pledged to make good on the claims that it owes to the people in the Gulf, and so the agreement we reached sets up a financial and legal framework to do it.

Another important element is that this $20 billion fund will not be controlled by either BP or by the government. It will be put in a escrow account, administered by an impartial, independent third party. So if you or your business has suffered an economic loss as a result of this spill, you’ll be eligible to file a claim for part of this $20 billion. This fund does not supersede either individuals’ rights or states’ rights to present claims in court. BP will also continue to be liable for the environmental disaster it has caused, and we’re going to continue to work to make sure that they address it.”

The Obama administration indicated any money paid to claimants will be counted against future settlements, to prevent double-dipping.

BP and the Obama administration agreed to appoint Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington lawyer and Democratic Party supporter who administered the claims process for victims of 9/11, to run the independent claims process commonly referred to as the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund.  Feinberg declined to comment on how much BP is paying him to run the fund.

BP’s offer to settle quickly might be a savvy move if Feinberg can obtain ironclad releases from the shrimpers, hotel owners and thousands of other people who claim they’ve lost money because of the gusher. BP could save hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees by preemptively funding the settlement. Feinberg said that at his request, lawyers for BP will be involved in drafting releases that exempt BP – but not other potential defendants – from any future liability for the spill. “This makes sense, since the release is designed to provide BP protection from lawsuits, and BP is paying $20 billion to satisfy claims,” Feinberg said in an e-mail message.

In theory, Feinberg and BP’s lawyers can craft an ironclad release, like the ones used to settle car-accident lawsuits every day. However, that could be a difficult proposition. “In practice, with this incident not only is there an ongoing catastrophe today, but its full effects won’t be felt for years,” said Burton LeBlanc, an attorney in the Baton Rouge, La., office of Baron & Budd, a Dallas firm that is prominent in asbestos and toxic-tort litigation. “The damages for some constituencies can’t be calculated yet.” Baron & Budd has even issued a news release reminding potential plaintiffs that the benzene in spilled oil can cause leukemia and lymphoma and pose “a serious health impact that can last for half a century.”

The BP fund is an attempt to buy peace by overwhelming potential plaintiffs with “easy” money. Companies have tried that before, with mixed success. Asbestos manufacturers failed miserably when they negotiated a global settlement with plaintiff lawyers in the early 1990s under which they’d pay out $300 million to injured workers in exchange for having cases of workers who were exposed, but not sick, valued at zero. The Supreme Court rejected the settlement in 1997 because it bound future claimants to terms they had no part in negotiating. The companies were out the $300 million and still faced thousands of asbestos lawsuits.

Feinberg’s Roadshow
On July 15, 2010, Feinberg, flying on a private jet paid for by BP, toured Louisiana and tried to assure affected residents they would be fairly compensated. He announced that he expects to set up shop for the independent BPOSVCF within the next two to three weeks. The BPOSVCF will operate for three years.

Feinberg explained the compensation plan includes two components: a no-obligation six month emergency payment for lost income and a final lump-sum payment with acceptance of release for BP. All victims can apply for the six month payment, up until ninety days after the well is capped. However, if claimants choose to accept the second and final BPOSVCF offer, they waive any right to bring further court proceedings against BP.

If victims do not consider the final offer sufficient, they may turn it down and pursue higher payments through the courts. However, Feinberg views the lack of court proceedings associated with his facility as a win-win for both sides. “Everyone should come in,” and the matter will be over with, in a matter of weeks or months, rather than years.

“When the oil has stopped, and we all know where it is heading, then I really urge you to come forward with a lump-sum request for payment,” Mr. Feinberg said on July 15th at a town-hall meeting attended by hundreds in Houma, La. Fielding repeated queries about how long-term damage from the spill will be measured, he said that his team would make its best estimates in calculating its final reimbursement offers.

Feinberg plans to apply tort-law principles in weighing claims, meaning plaintiffs will have to show that their losses wouldn’t have occurred “but for” the oil spill. “I am determined to come up with a system more generous and more beneficial than if you file a lawsuit,” Feinberg said.

Opposition to the BPOSVCF
On July 13, 2010, Alabama Attorney General Troy King wrote a letter to President Obama, urging the president to scrap Feinberg’s proposals for administering the BPOSVCF. “The document appears collusive at best and contrary to the public interest at worst,” King wrote to Obama. King said he was shocked that the Gulf states hadn’t been asked for input before Feinberg and BP reached the ninth draft of the plan. He called it “an illegal attempt” to limit BP’s liability under federal law. He also said that it aimed to keep people who have suffered damage out of state courts by making them sign a release waiving lawsuits or additional claims against BP.

“The federal government, especially the executive branch, has no business usurping state court jurisdiction and meddling in the state law liability arising from the oil spill,” King wrote.

Given that losses could continue for months or years after the gusher is stopped, King is justifiably concerned that the BPOSVCF would terminate interim claims ninety days after the well is capped and allow just one final claim thereafter.

On July 14, 2010, attorneys general from the five Gulf states met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Mobile, Alabama. Attorney General  Jim Hood of Mississippi and Attorney General Troy King of Alabama said the meeting was dominated by talk of a proposal Feinberg sent to the Gulf states that would have ended claims payments ninety days after the well is capped and required people to sign a release of liability before collecting their last payment from the BPOSVCF.

Hood said Holder recognized the flaws in the current BPOSVCF plan. “This is going to go on for three, five, ten years after the spill is stopped,” Hood said. Mr. Feinberg “can’t treat it like 9/11,” which, Hood said, for all of its horror, took place on a single day.

King said Holder would put together a panel of attorneys and officials, with heavy representation from the Gulf Coast, to draft a new proposal to submit to Feinberg. “The focus should be on protecting the Gulf states and making sure everyone is made whole,” said King.

Issues BP Victims Must Consider
Many businesses are concerned it will be difficult, if not impossible, to forecast the long-term recovery of the crab and shrimp populations, or how quickly U.S. consumers will re-embrace Gulf seafood, among other things.

Gary Bauer, president of Pontchartrain Blue Crab Inc., a seafood wholesaler and processor on Salt Bayou east of New Orleans, said his sales of blue crab and shrimp have dropped to 20% of their normal $8 million-a-year pace. In addition, foreign seafood suppliers are moving in on his network of grocers, restaurants and other buyers, further denting his long-term prospects. “Are we going to have a crab season next year, and are there going to be fishermen who will fish next year?” Mr. Bauer said. “How does BP reimburse for that? I spent 10 years of my life building a brand, and they destroyed it.”

Wayne Hess, manager of American Seafood Inc., a processor and wholesaler in New Orleans, said his sales were down roughly 30% from their annual average of $5 million to $7 million. “How am I supposed to project my losses not knowing how all of the different species we carry will be affected in the next year to five years?” he said. “The female crabs that are mating right now don’t drop their eggs until October or December. Those larvae may not make it.”

How can those in the tourism and fishing industries possibly know the extent of the damage to their business without knowing what next year’s season will be like? How can a person predict the long-term health effects of his or her exposure to the oil? As noted above, the benzene in spilled oil can cause leukemia and lymphoma and pose “a serious health impact that can last for half a century.”

So far, economic damage estimates vary widely. Greater New Orleans Inc., the economic-development agency for the 10-parish area, published preliminary estimates that the region’s fishing industry stands to suffer annual losses ranging from $900 million to $3.3 billion.

According to estimates from bond rating agency Moody’s, BP has total proven reserves of approximately 18 billion barrels of oil in the ground. BP has the ability and responsibility to fully compensate each and every BP oil gusher victim.

Conflict of Interest
“I’m working for you,” Feinberg repeatedly stated to the crowds of victims in Louisiana, and he called for local collaboration.

Feinberg is being compensated by BP, travels on a private jet paid for by BP, and has requested that lawyers for BP, not attorneys general from the Gulf states, be involved in drafting releases that exempt BP – but not other potential defendants – from any future liability for the spill.

An important rule of interpretation in administrative law is the “duck rule” – if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Abraham Lincoln reportedly explained a stronger version of this rule in his answer to the question, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? Four. Just because you call the tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Feinberg is a BP duck. Just because he says he is working for you doesn’t mean he is.

Councilman Thomas Capella from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana asked Feinberg if claimants should hire an attorney. Feinberg said that’s not necessary because his office will have attorneys on staff to provide free services to individuals and businesses. The fact that Feinberg’s attorneys intend to represent both BP and BP’s victims is an egregious conflict of interest.

“I am determined to come up with a system more generous and more beneficial than if you file a lawsuit,” Feinberg said. The question is whether the system will be more generous and more beneficial for BP or BP’s victims.

Animated and lively, with a little Bostonian humor, it has been reported Feinberg held the attention of the overflowing crowds during his recent roadshow in Louisiana. A reporter stated, “He jabs the air, punches up words to drive home a point and gets laughs with self-deprecating references to his Boston accent.” Rather than saying “cheese” when he posed for a photo with four police officers, he said, “Everybody file a claim?”

The following joke may be more appropriate for Feinberg’s BPOSVCF plan:

Question: What is the name of the bayou that is most representative of the federal government’s response to the victims of the BP oil gusher?
Answer: Bayou Self

CONCLUSION

Under the CWA alone, gross negligence penalties based upon 3,768,934 barrels of oil spilled would equal $16,206,416,200. Unfortunately, the federal government has no intention of holding BP accountable under either OPA 90 or CWA. Pursuant to OPA Section 4201, and given that the BP oil spill is a “discharge posing substantial threat to public health or welfare,” President Obama should have federalized the collection of the oil that is in the sea and the restoration of the coastal areas impacted by the oil. Both of these activities could be done without having to federalize the operational priority of stopping the flow of oil from the well. To date, the federal government has allowed BP to use more than 1,840,000 gallons of oil dispersant. Once the well is capped and the oil is dispersed throughout the oceans of the world, who’s to say for certain whether BP’s oil well blowout gushed an average of 1,000 or 100,000 bbl/day of oil?

Each individual potential plaintiff who has suffered damages as a result of the BP oil gusher should immediately seek competent legal counsel to directly represent his or her interests. If the amount of damages suffered by the individual potential plaintiff is small, it may not be economically feasible for the plaintiff to file an individual lawsuit. Accordingly, a class action lawsuit may be in the best interests of this plaintiff. However, given that the damages suffered by the vast majority of individual potential plaintiffs as a result of the BP oil gusher are potentially so great and will be on-going, class treatment would not be necessary to permit effective litigation of the claim. Here, when the amount of damages suffered by the individual is so great, the filing of an individual lawsuit should be economically feasible and may be in the best interests of the plaintiff. This decision should be made by the potential plaintiff only after a thorough consultation with his or her legal counsel.

The BPOSVCF is not administered by an impartial, independent third party. However, claimants will only waive their right to sue if they accept a final lump-sum payment. They can still sue if they only accept an initial emergency payment. Therefore, acceptance of a no-obligation six month emergency payment for lost income may be in the best interests of victims of the BP oil gusher. The decision to accept a final lump-sum payment, and thereby waive any right to bring further court proceedings against BP, should be made by the BP oil gusher victim only after a thorough consultation with his or her legal counsel.

APPENDICES

References
Adams, Mike, “First Amendment suspended in the Gulf of Mexico as spill cover-up goes Orwellian,” NaturalNews (July 3, 2010), available at: http://www.naturalnews.com/029130_Gulf_of_Mexico_censorship.html

Bhattacharyya, S., P.L. Klerks, and J.A. Nyman. 2003. Toxicity to freshwater organisms from oils and oil spill chemical treatments in laboratory microcosms. Environmental Pollution 122:205-215.

BP is Not the Only Responsible Party, available at: http://renergie.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/bp-is-not-the-only-responsible-party/

Chokkavelu, Anand, “The BP Stat That Will Shock You,” Motley Fool (July 9, 2010), available at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38165954/ns/business-motley_fool/

Clean Water Act

EPA: http://www.epa.gov/oem/content/lawsregs/opaover.htm

Fisher, Daniel and Hawkins, Asher, “BP’s Legal Blowout,” Forbes.com (July 14, 2010)

Greenwald, Glenn, “The BP/Government police state,” Salon (July 5, 2010), available at:
http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/07/05/bp/index.html

Hals, Tom, “Analysis: BP investors face tough road in court fights,” Reuters (July 16, 2010)

Hudson, Kris and Baskin, Brian, “Fears Mount That Fund Won’t Cover All Damages,” The Wall Street Journal (July 15, 2010)

Kindy, Kimberly, “Recovery effort falls vastly short of BP’s promises,” Washington Post
(July 6, 2010), available at:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/05/AR2010070502937.html

Lustgarten, Abrahm, “Chemicals Meant To Break Up BP Oil Spill Present New Environmental Concerns,” ProPublica (April 30, 2010), available at: http://www.propublica.org/article/bp-gulf-oil-spill-dispersants-0430

MMS: http://www.mms.gov/

Murtaugh, Dan, “Attorney General Eric Holder says he’ll try to address oil spill claims concerns,” Press-Register (July 15, 2010)

National Contingency Plan

NOAA: http://www.noaa.gov/

Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Peters, Jeremy W., “Efforts to Limit the Flow of Spill News,” The New York Times (June 9, 2010)

Philips, Matthew, “BP’s Photo Blockade of the Gulf Oil Spill,” Newsweek (May 26, 2010), available at: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/05/26/the-missing-oil-spill-photos.html

Schoof, Renee and Bolstad, Erika, “BP well may be spewing 100,000 barrels a day, scientist says,” McClatchy Newspapers (June 7, 2010), available at: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/06/07/95467/bp-well-may-be-spewing.html

Schoof, Renee, “Scientists propose big experiment to study Gulf oil spill,” McClatchy Newspapers (July 11, 20100, available at:
http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/07/11/1725271/scientists-propose-big-experiment.html

Schwartz, John, “More Delicate Diplomacy for the Overseer of the Compensation Fund,” The New York Times (July 16, 2010)

USA Today: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2010/05/how-responsible-is-us-government-for-gulf-oil-spill/

USCG: http://www.uscg.mil/

Walsh, Bryan, “The Oil Spill and the Perils of Losing Trust,” Time (July 7, 2010), available at:
http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2010/07/07/the-oil-spill-and-the-perils-of-losing-trust/
About the Author
Brian J. Donovan is an attorney and marine engineer with thirty-five years of international business experience.

Mr. Donovan, a member of The Florida Bar, The U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida and The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, holds a J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law (where he was recipient of the “Global Law & Practice Award” as the outstanding graduate in the areas of International Law and International Business Law) and a B.S., with honors, in Marine/Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering from the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

Mr. Donovan, with deep family roots in southern Louisiana, has first-hand knowledge of the catastrophic devastation of the Louisiana Gulf Coast caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He fully appreciates that the damage caused by Katrina and Rita may pale in comparison to the massive and potentially unprecedented environmental and economic impact of the BP oil gusher of April, 2010.

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