The company that owns the now-sunken drilling rig oozing oil into the Gulf of Mexico is counting on a 150-year-old maritime law to limit its damages. To a mere $26.7 million.
That's how much Transocean Ltd. said it should pay in a motion filed on Thursday in federal court in the Southern District of Texas. Citing an 1851 law aimed at shipping mishaps, Transocean said its damages should be limited to $26.7 million in unpaid drilling fees earned before the April 20 explosion, noting the Deepwater Horizon rig is otherwise worth nothing now.
The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 states that the owner of a ship -- or, in this case, offshore oil rig -- is only liable for the value of the ship post-accident. This is the same law the owners of the Titanic used to limit their liability.
Transocean also asked that the 100-plus oil spill lawsuits in which it is a named defendant be consolidated before a federal judge in Houston, where its U.S. operations are based. Co-defendant BP Plc has filed a similar motion.
Transocean denied responsibility for the explosion that killed 11 people and triggered an environmental catastrophe, stating that the rig was "in all respects seaworthy.'' In its court filing, the company said, "Any and all injury, loss, destruction and damage arising out of or related to the above described casualty event was not caused or contributed to by any fault, negligence or lack of due care on the part of the petitioners or unseaworthiness or fault of the MODU Deepwater Horizon or any person in charge of her."
The motion was filed by Frank Piccolo of the Houston office of Preis & Roy, who was not available for comment.
Some plaintiffs lawyers found Transocean's attempt to limit liability disappointing. "The fact that they're going through all of these processes -- it impedes the ability for people to get properly compensated," said Tony Buzbee of Houston's Buzbee Law Firm, who is representing seven injured crewmembers from the rig and has a dozen more suits in the pipeline.
However, Buzbee said he's not surprised by Transocean's latest move. And he expects the other defendants, including BP, to try similar tactics down the road. "At the end of the day, they will probably all try to argue every defense out there," he said.
Jere Beasley of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles in Montgomery, Ala., which has three proposed class actions involving damages from the oil spill and more on the way, was equally upset over Transocean's attempt to limit its losses. "Trying to take advantage of an antiquated statute which was never intended to apply to a massive disaster of this magnitude shows how little regard the bosses at Transocean really have for the folks who have been badly hurt and damaged by their actions," Beasley said.