Legal Claims & Litigation
The Deepwater Horizon incident at the Macondo well in 2010 led to the death of eleven oil rig workers and damaged air, water, sediment, wildlife, and habitats across the Gulf. Hundreds of lawsuits related to the disaster have been and continue to be filed in courts across the nation, both by individuals and by government entities. Together, these lawsuits raise a wide variety of legal claims under state and federal law, from tort law (e.g., personal injury) to environmental law (e.g., water pollution). The result is a complex array of claims, filed by different parties, for different damages, on different timelines.
To help people understand the legal response to this disaster, this resource provides a big-picture overview of the various types of legal claims and their status as of January 11, 2013. If you encounter any unfamiliar terms, view our Glossary of Key Legal Terms. If you would like more detail on any of the claims, see ELI’s searchable database of court cases filed in response to the spill.
UPDATE: For details about the January 3, 2013 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Transocean, see ELI’s fact sheet on the Transocean settlement.
UPDATE: For details about the November 15, 2012 criminal plea agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and BP, see ELI’s fact sheet on the BP agreement.
UPDATE: For details about the February 17, 2012 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and MOEX, see ELI’s fact sheet on the MOEX settlement.
Responsible Parties and Other Defendants
The federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) states that each “responsible party” is liable for oil spill removal costs and damages. OPA outlines a process by which the Natural Resource Trustees officially designate responsible parties. Thus far, the following entities have been identified as responsible parties for the Deepwater Horizon incident:
Parties not designated as “responsible parties” under OPA can still be sued under other federal and state laws. Other notable defendants in the Deepwater Horizon litigation that are not “responsible parties” include: QBE Underwriting LTD., Lloyd’s Syndicate 1036, which insured the Deepwater Horizon; Halliburton Co., which formulated the cement intended to seal the well against leaks; Cameron International Corp., which designed the blowout preventer used on the well; Weatherford U.S., L.P., which produced the float collar used at the well; BP America Inc., BP Products North America, Inc., and BP America Production Company, which, together with BP Exploration and Production, Inc., are subsidiaries of BP, p.l.c.; and Mitsui Oil Exploration Co., Ltd., which is the parent company of MOEX.
What is the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center?
In August 2010, BP established the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), run by Kenneth Feinberg, to handle claims for damages from individuals and businesses outside of court. The GCCF used part of the $20 billion that BP initially set aside in trust to pay for damages caused by Deepwater Horizon. With a settlement pending, the GCCF was officially terminated on March 8, 2012, and a transitional court-run claims process was established. On June 4, 2012, the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center replaced the transitional process, pursuant to the settlement between BP and the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.
What are the Multidistrict Litigations (MDLs)?
When multiple cases arise out of a single incident, they will likely share overlapping “questions of fact.” In other words, while specific issues will vary, each of the claims will require similar factual determinations about the details of the incident itself. To address these cases one by one would be inefficient (and potentially inequitable if different courts came to different conclusions). Consequently, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation may consolidate the cases (bring them together) into an MDL such that common questions of fact can be addressed all at once.
MDL No. 2179, In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010 is a consolidation of hundreds of civil lawsuits regarding the effects of the Deepwater Horizon incident. It involves economic loss claims, medical claims, federal civil claims, and state and local government civil claims. It is being overseen by Judge Carl J. Barbier of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Judge Barbier appointed a set of lawyers and law firms to form a Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee to coordinate the many individual and business plaintiffs; he also organized claims into groups called “pleading bundles.” The trial will be conducted in two phases with the potential for additional phases if needed; the first phase will look at the well explosion and oil spill. The Phase I trial was originally set to begin on February 27, 2012, but was postponed in light of the settlements reached between BP and the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee. On December 21, 2012, the court approved a settlement agreement between BP and the Plantiffs’ Steering Committee that settled most of the economic loss claims related to the disaster. Then on January 11, 2013, the court approved a settlement agreement between the two parties that settled most of the related medical claims. The trial is now scheduled to begin on February 25, 2013.
MDL No. 2185, In re: BP p.l.c. Securities Litigation, is a consolidation of various securities lawsuits brought by shareholders alleging that BP misled its investors about its safety measures and the likelihood of a spill, resulting in dramatic investment losses for BP shareholders following the Deepwater Horizon incident. The securities litigation cases seek compensatory and punitive damages. The cases involve common questions of fact about BP’s safety record and duties to its shareholders, and have a different focus from the cases in MDL No. 2179. Also, the securities cases mainly involve BP and its executives – not other defendants associated with the oil spill. For these reasons, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation determined that it would be efficient to create a separate MDL for the securities cases. The Panel assigned Judge Keith P. Ellison of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to oversee this litigation. MDL No. 2185 is ongoing.
What are the Major Types of Legal Claims?
Note 1: Economic loss claims settlement
Note 2: Medical injury claims settlement
Note 3: U.S. civil penalty lawsuit
Note 4: Court findings related to BP, Anadarko and Transocean
Note 5: ELI’s fact sheet on the BP guilty plea agreement
Note 6: ELI’s fact sheet on the Transocean settlement
Note 7: U.S. civil penalty lawsuit
Note 8: U.S. civil penalty lawsuit
Note 9: State and local government ruling