Around 100 Wrongful Death and Tort Lawsuits Filed Over Oil Spill

As Florida braces for a tendril of the colossal oil to arrive in the Keys as early as next week, companies associated with the Deepwater Horizon have already begun their defense in approximately 100 wrongful death, negligence, product liability, environmental law, and shareholder actions.

BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron International are facing wrongful death lawsuits in several states by the families of the eleven workers killed when the rig exploded in April. At least one federal class action lawsuit has been filed to recover economic damages, and more are planned.

Last week, rig operator Transocean filed a motion in federal court to limit its total liability for the oil rig accident to $26.7 million, reasoning that the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act would limit their responsibility for damages to the current value of the sunken rig. (Before it sank, the rig was valued at $650 million.) Legal analysts expect that motion to be denied.

Meanwhile, BP and Transocean have requested that the multiple federal lawsuits be consolidated into a single action based in the federal court located in Houston. Attorneys for the plaintiffs agree that the lawsuits should be consolidated, but prefer a New Orleans venue, since the majority of environmental damage and the largest number of plaintiffs are located in Louisiana.

Different Plaintiffs, Jurisdictions, Laws and Categories of Claims

Wrongful death lawsuits are typically filed in state courts, although in this case they may be filed in federal court under the federal Death on the High Seas Act. Negligence-based lawsuits for economic harm are also more commonly filed in state courts. Environmental and shareholder lawsuits are more likely to be filed in federal courts. Each type of lawsuit involves a different set of laws, and the law and procedures to be used also vary from state to state and between the state and federal governments.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which is part of the federal judicial branch, is charged with deciding whether federal cases should be consolidated and, if so, which court is most appropriate to hear the combined cases. The panel is scheduled to consider the consolidation requests in July.

The geyser of oil is not expected to be fully under control until July or August. With a slick heading into the Loop Current, which could carry it around the Florida Keys and up the Eastern Seaboard, more litigation is expected.

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