Oil Spill Legal Overview - FindLaw

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 discharge of oil polluted wetlands, closed small businesses, and exposed a regulatory system that may not have lived up to its legal and ethical responsibilities.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked to institute stronger measures against such natural disasters.

This article lays out the most common types of legal actions that will arise from a disaster like the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. It also covers the history of oil spills and related laws.

Jones Act

Eleven workers lost their lives and several more suffered injuries during the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath. Because the accident 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 any injury sustained as a result of that negligence.

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. Under relevant laws, claimants can recover for reimbursement of removal costs, as well as for a variety of other expenses related to handling the fallout from oil spills.

Environmental/Regulatory Issues

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.

History of Oil Spills

To fund the costs associated with remediation after oil spills, the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund was established in 1986 by the federal government.

Prior to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the last major oil spill was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Occurring in 1989, it affected Prince William Sound in Alaska.

However, at the time of that disaster, the trust fund had not been funded. To deal with this problem, in 1990 and in years since, the federal government has passed additional laws to strengthen the fund.

In 2005, for example, the Energy Policy Act was passed, increasing the size of the fund to $2.7 billion. At the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, approximately $1.6 billion was in the fund.

The fund is divided into the emergency fund and the principal fund. Purposed for covering the costs of remediation after oil spills, it is meant to serve environmental and public health interests.

Money from the fund is used to clean up hazardous substances, for oil removal, and services related to natural resource damage assessment.

In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, a federal law known as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) was enacted. Broadly speaking, it establishes the following:

  1. That entities releasing hazardous materials and chemicals into the environment must handle the costs associated with cleaning up the release of them, and
  2. Those entities must also cover the costs of restoring damage to the environment that they cause.

The law covers the waters of the United States, the shorelines of the country, and offshore facilities.

As an amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1972, the OPA was meant to bolster protections against oil spill disasters such as the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1990. It was meant to strengthen measures for oil spill prevention, as well as for handling disasters.

The OPA also requires any entity releasing hazardous materials and oil into the environment to have an effective response capability, response plans and contingency plans in place, and an on-scene coordinator for handling issues with the risks to the environment that oil production creates. It places certain restrictions on oil tankers and tank vessels.

Who is Involved in Handling Responses?

While federal laws require that oil-producing entities bear financial responsibility under a variety of circumstances, other entities are involved in response efforts should they be needed. For example, the United States Coast Guard has historically been very present at the scenes of oil spills to assist with the immediate aftermath of any such disaster. They have been involved in many an oil spill response.

Need More Help? Contact an Attorney

If you or someone you loved has been negatively affected by an oil spill, it's advised that you seek the assistance of a qualified personal injury attorney near you. They will be able to help you with all the concerns and legal processes involved in seeking justice due to an injury. Consider contacting a qualified personal injury attorney near you today.