By GREGORY DL MORRIS, who has covered chemical and financial industry issues for the past 20 years
Much like the million barrels of oil that spread across the Gulf of Mexico from the ruptured Macondo well last spring and summer, the litigation over the accident that claimed 11 lives and befouled coasts in five states has oozed far and wide, and will take much longer to resolve than it took to create. That said, several large settlements and a host of smaller ones have set a new tone in the largest legal process, with the consolidated damages case being heard before Judge Carl J. Barbier in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans.
In the most recent settlement, Weatherford, the oilfield services firm, reached an agreement on June 20 with BP, the majority owner and operator in the Macondo well. Weatherford agreed to pay BP $75 million in return for being indemnified against compensatory claims, including claims relating to pollution damage. Notably, BP's indemnity excludes civil, criminal or administrative fines and penalties; claims for punitive damages; and certain other claims.
Exactly one month prior to the Weatherford settlement, BP came to terms with Mitsui, which had a 10 percent interest in the well through its Moex subsidiary. Anadarko has a 25 percent interest in the well. Mitsui paid BP $1.065 billion for indemnity similar to what Weatherford got.
In the settlement, Mitsui underscored "the conclusions of the United States Coast Guard (investigation) that, among other things, the safety management systems of both Transocean and its Deepwater Horizon rig had significant deficiencies that rendered them ineffective in preventing the accident."
The Macondo well blew out on April 20, 2010, destroying the Deepwater Horizon rig.
WRONGFUL DEATH SUITS
For months now there has been a thin trickle of individual settlements of personal injury or damages cases. In recent weeks that has increased to a steady stream. Notably, four of the 11 wrongful death suits have been settled, and two more are known to be in discussion. Since the middle of June, Barbier has approved more than two dozen motions to drop suits; several of those motions included multiple plaintiffs.
In almost all of those cases, the litigation was dropped once the plaintiffs accepted a payment from the $20-billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility, established by BP for exactly that purpose. Ken Feinberg, administrator, said his office began operations on August 23, 2010 and will continue until August 23, 2013. Since its inception, the facility has received approximately 857,000 claims from more than 500,000 individuals and businesses. Of those, GCCF has settled nearly 150,000 claims, worth almost $4.5 billion.
Neither Feinberg nor the plaintiffs' bar indicate there is any specific coordinated acceleration, but all acknowledge that, through repetition, the process is being streamlined.
"I have represented some large and complex claims that have been successfully resolved, and I have every hope that will continue," said J.R. Whaley, an attorney with Neblett, Beard & Arsenault in Alexandria, La.
MORE SETTLEMENTS TO COME
The consensus among both attorneys and legal experts who are following the litigation is that there are likely to be more settlements among the major companies.
"In the corporate board rooms, most people would like an opportunity to guide their own destiny before a jury decides it for them," said one person close to the litigation. "I would like to think that these guys are smart enough to want to keep that control. Even if they think they are right, the jury box is like Pandora's Box. Once you open that, it is tough to back away from any decisions from it."
Still, some disputes will go to trial. The first of those is slated for February, 2012, at which Judge Barbier will allocate responsibility for the accident.
As one attorney put it, "There is plenty of blame to go around."
July 5, 2011
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