Litigation resulting from the April, 2010, Gulf Coast oil spill is among the largest and most complex in history, students at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law learned Tuesday, Oct. 18.
“It will be a textbook case, regardless of how it turns out,” Alabama attorney general Luther Strange said of the litigation that involves thousands of plaintiffs, five states, multiple defendants, including British Petroleum, and many issues that will be tried in one trial. It is an “amazing law suit” that will be studied by lawyers and law students for years to come, he said.
Strange was part of a panel discussion about the continuing legal and administrative issues related to the oil spill that resulted from the explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
The lawsuit that will be heard in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, La., in February, 2012, could last six months or be settled quickly, said Strange, who is the lead attorney general for all states filing claims against BP.
“The state of Alabama suffered hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in damages, both economically and environmentally,” said Strange, who has taken depositions around the world, including one in London, England, from Tony Hayward, who was chief executive of BP at the time of the spill.
Joining Strange on the panel were environmental law specialists Rhon Jones, one of 15 attorneys chosen for the plaintiff’s steering committee in the multi-district litigation, and Laura Chain, whose law firm assists businesses and individuals with their claims made to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).
“A lot of work has been done by a lot of lawyers in a short time,” Jones said of the project that involves more than 20 million pages of documents, many depositions and 5,600 exhibits.
He predicts that the trial will proceed in three phases. The first will deal with issues of the explosion, “who did what,” and allocations of fault. Phase two will deal with “where did the oil go,” and the final “catch-all” phase will deal with post-spill and dispersant-related issues.
“It’s all encompassing with many moving parts,” he said, citing diverse matters that relate to the economic side as well as to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.
Jones, a member of Montgomery’s Beasley Allen law firm, complimented Strange on his service as liaison between the district court and the five states that were affected by the estimated 200 million gallons of oil that floated into the gulf for 87 days. He also noted that various levels of state government had worked together cooperatively. “It makes you proud to be an Alabamian.”
Chain explained the workings of the GCCF, which began administering claims in August of 2010. Kenneth Fineberg, appointed by president Barack Obama as claims administrator on behalf of BP, put measures in place to eliminate the possibility of people making high claims with no proof, she said.
“Now, people must prove their losses,” said Chain, adding that claims can include clean-up costs, property damage, loss of livelihood, injury or death.
“Our role as attorneys on the ground is to assist claimants with getting documents and helping them prove their claims,” said Chain, a member of Birmingham’s White Arnold & Dowd law firm who has been based in Orange Beach, Ala., since March. “We see claimants from nail salon workers to shrimpers saying ‘help me.’”
To prove loss, they can submit documents such as past tax returns that will show what they were earning prior to the oil spill, said Chain, who has had to become expert in many fields in order to understand how someone earns their money. As of October 3, $973,989,226 had been paid to 62,219 claimants.
The panel discussion was sponsored by Cumberland’s Cordell Hull Speakers Forum and Environmental Law Society. Cumberland dean John L. Carroll, a former U.S. district judge who serves as an appointed appeals judge in the oil spill administrative claims process, acted as moderator.