Support Marketplace

Lawsuits pile up over BP oil spill

Contract workers unload oil booms to protect marshlands along the Gulf of Mexico in Hopedale, La.

BP says it made some progress over the weekend containing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico through a mile-long tube, so now oil is being diverted to to a ship rather than into the water. It's another fix that company officials hopes will last after three weeks of efforts to stop oil from gushing. If not, executives at BP say they'll keep trying.

"We always have backup plans, and so we're already in the process of constructing a backup tool to make sure if anything goes wrong, we're well prepared," says BP's Senior Executive Vice President Kent Wells.

BP want to fully stop the flow later this week. The company says 1,000 barrels a day of the oil spill are being captured by the drill ship.

But it's too late to prevent the spill from spreading millions of gallons of crude around the region, including -- according to one report -- into a strong current moving across the Florida Keys that could push it along the eastern seaboard.

The Washington Post reports today it may also be too late to prevent all the lawsuits. So far, the spill has generated at least 88 lawsuits. Cases include one from the widow of an oil worker who went missing in the first blast to one on behalf of Louisiana fisherman. Others include an environmental group and a couple of big hotels.

Who faces lawsuits

BP is clearly a big target of the lawsuits as one of the biggest companies in the world. But besides BP itself, there are plenty of other places to sue. The offshore drilling company, the company that made the blowout preventer, and even the federal government could end up being liable.

The plaintiffs' attorneys have been circling since the accident happened. Some of these are firms that specialize in going after oil companies. Others are more general plaintiffs attorneys.

"Some of these lawyers are ones who have made a career of suing the oil companies. So these are people who've been in the trenches fighting on these issues for years," says Juliet Eilperin, who helped co-write the Washington Post article. "But they've also got successful tort lawyers from across the field -- whether they've dealt with asbestos, tobacco, breast implants and Chinese drywall. So a lot of these folks have worked with each other on other cases in the past, so it's got some big names like Erin Brockovich as well as Robert Kennedy, Jr."

Lawyers' concerns

One of the big issues arising from the spill is concern over what is happening to the eco-system that's being affected and what cannot be seen.

"One of the huge issues that a lot of these lawyers are trying to deal with is actually getting their own toxicologists and scientists on the ground to kind of look and see both what's the state of the Gulf before there's widespread contamination and as that happens. And they're working hard to do this," says Eilperin. "But one of the key questions is going to be how much is the federal government managing to measure at this point so that can be a baseline when they get to court and need to talk about what damage has occurred as a result of the spill."

BP's liability is capped at $75 million unless it's found guilty of gross negligence, willful misconduct or failure to comply with safety standards. But over the weekend, the government said BP should be ready to pay claimants without a cap.

BP's PR woes

On Friday, BP CEO Tony Hayward told a British newspaper that the big oil spill is "tiny" in relation to a "very big ocean." But with reports saying that the spill may be larger than earlier estimates, his comments garnered criticism from public relations experts and the public.

Phil Butler, marketing consultant at Pamil-Visions PR, says BP started with a passive-aggressive stance on the spill, but has since shifted to using more legal language.

"[BP's] PR firm is Brunswick Group, which is one of the most powerful PR firms in the world. Somebody there, it would seem to me, would be saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. We need to get away from the bean counters and the attorneys, and think about the long term.' You can't worry about a trillion dollars if you're going to lose $10 trillion."

Current oil prices are at three-month lows, around $70 a barrel today. That's down more than 18 percent, so far, in May. High U.S. inventory and the weak euro have contributed to the drop.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...