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Oil Spill Legal Overview

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP exploded on April 21, 2010 and sank into the Gulf of Mexico a few days later, it was an immediate tragedy for the families of the rig workers who were injured or lost their lives. As the oil spill spread, the tragedy became a catastrophe. The oil has polluted wetlands, closed small business and exposed a regulatory system that may not have lived up to its legal and ethical responsibilities.

This overview lays out the most common types of legal actions that will arise from a disaster like the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

Jones Act

Eleven workers lost their lives and several more suffered injuries during the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath. Because the acident occurred at sea, responsibility for those deaths and injuries is covered by the Jones Act. The Jones Act provides seamen with the right to sue their employers for negligent behavior, in addition to the common law ability to claim compensation for their health care and maintenance pay for the duration of their injury.

Moreover, if the seamen or their families can demonstrate intentional wrongdoing on the part of their employer, they may be able to recover punitive damages.

Toxic tort/Nuisance complaints

Crude oil is a noxious substance that can injure or kill plants, animals and people. The oil could seep into groundwater and pollute drinking wells or contaminate food sources. Fumes from the oil spill could also travel many miles inland and cause people to fall ill, or worse. These injuries could give rise to personal injury claims against the owners and operators of the Deepwater Horizon.

Economic Damages

Many businesses, especially in the fishing and tourist industries, have already been severely impacted by the effects of the oil spill. The owners of these businesses can file claims for the economic damages they have suffered as a result of the spill.

Environmental/Regulatory

Many environmental groups have already filed lawsuits against the federal government for their oversight of the Deepwater Horizon specifically and offshore drilling in general. One suit alleges that the government illegally allowed BP to drill in over 5,000 feet of water without analyzing blow-out and worst-case oil spill analysis. You can expect to see more of these types of lawsuits as the causes and effects of the Gulf oil spill become clear.

Next Steps
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