Federal judge rules punitive damages available against BP in claims over oil spill

[JURIST] The US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana [official website] Friday ruled on motions to dismiss made by British Petroleum (BP) [corporate website] and other defendants in litigation [materials] over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive]. Among other issues, Judge Carl Barbier ruled [order, PDF] that all state law claims in the case are preempted by federal maritime law and should be dismissed, but that the same general maritime law makes punitive damages available. Since admiralty jurisdiction is present is the case, it requires application of substantive maritime law. BP and the other companies claimed the US Oil Pollution Act (OPA) [EPA backgrounder] intervenes, and its silence on punitive damages should prevent plaintiffs from any such collection. Judge Barbier disagreed:

OPA does not mention punitive damages; thus, while punitive damages are not available under OPA, the Court does not read OPA’s silence as meaning that punitive damages are precluded under general maritime law. Congress knows how to proscribe punitive damages when it intends to... Thus, OPA does not displace general maritime law claims for those Plaintiffs who would have been able to bring such claims prior to OPA's enactment. These Plaintiffs assert plausible claims for punitive damages against Responsible and non-Responsible parties.
Judge Barbier also ruled that owners of boats damaged during cleanup efforts may proceed under federal oil pollution law, as may corporate claims over lost revenue due to the subsequent government moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Dismissed claims for economic loss brought by individuals and businesses under state law still may be pursued under federal maritime and environmental laws.

Last month Judge Barbier dismissed [JURIST report] consolidated racketeering claims against BP in connection with the spill brought under the US Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) [text]. In February, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood [official website] asked the district court to order the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) [official website] to fulfill its legal obligations to aid victims of the spill and to remedy inadequate claims mechanisms [JURIST report]. The GCCF began processing claims in August following the completion of negotiations [JURIST reports] between BP and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website]. Former Alabama Attorney General Troy King filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] in August of last year against BP for damages to the state's coast and economy, claiming that the oil giant has failed in its efforts to accept responsibility for the oil spill. In July 2010, a class action lawsuit [JURIST report] was filed against the company in a Louisiana state court alleging that its negligent actions led to the spill and that BP was further negligent in its oversight of the cleanup effort, resulting in volunteers falling ill due to inadequate protective equipment. One month prior, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] announced that the DOJ would review whether any criminal or civil laws were violated [JURIST report] by BP.

 

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