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House Expands Damages Available to Oil Spill WorkersThe House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill that would allow families of workers killed or injured in the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion to sue for non-economic damages. The SPILL Act amends a decades-old act to extend to all companies operating on the high seas. Hailed by plaintiffs lawyers, the House vote was a blow to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had lobbied heavily against the bill, arguing it could open the door to more litigation against businesses that have nothing to do with the oil spill.
The National Law Journal2010-07-02 12:00:00 AM
To the chagrin of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the cruise line industry, the House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill that would allow the families of oil spill victims to sue for non-economic damages.
In a voice vote, the House approved the Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act (pdf), which amended the decades-old Death on the High Seas Act to allow families of the deceased oil workers to recover non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, loss of care, comfort and companionship.
Plaintiffs lawyers hailed the vote as an overdue victory for those seeking legal recourse for injuries that occur at sea.
"That's the greatest thing that's ever happened for widows and kids. It's unfortunate, though, that it took the oil spill to make it happen," said plaintiffs attorney Daniel Becnel. Becnel has several oil spill lawsuits pending on behalf of both those injured in the oil rig explosion and for businesses suffering economic damages.
The American Association for Justice, the plaintiffs bar's primary lobbying group, was equally pleased with vote. "The House's quick passage of this bill shows how current maritime laws desperately need to be updated if the negligent corporations responsible for the tragedy are to be held accountable," AAJ President Anthony Tarricone said in a statement. "The families of workers who died aboard the Deepwater Horizon, as well as those affected by other maritime disasters, are now one large step closer to receiving justice."
The vote, however, was a blow to the Chamber and the Cruise Lines International Association, which had lobbied heavily against the bill. They have argued that it could open the door to more litigation against businesses that have nothing to do with the oil spill.
Of particular concern to both groups were provisions that expanded the types of damages a plaintiff could collect as a result of the death of a family member to include non-pecuniary damages, which, they contend, are difficult to measure and evaluate.
"There's no question that these provisions will invite lawsuits on issues that have nothing to do with the issues around the Gulf spill," said Brian Quigley, a spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce.
For example, Quigley said, the SPILL Act could lead to more asbestos-related lawsuits against the maritime industry. Workers' compensation liability standards are also likely to be much broader for the maritime industry, he said.
"The last thing we need is these kinds of provisions that will drive up liability, and thus the cost of doing business to industries that had nothing to do with the Gulf oil spill," he said.
The Cruise Lines International Association echoed those concerns in a letter it wrote to the Florida congressional delegation on Tuesday, strongly urging members to reject the bill. The association noted that the bill could lead to costly litigation against the cruise industry, which, it noted, contributed more than $5.8 billion to Florida's economy in 2009.
"While we have no objection to addressing the rights of victims of the Gulf oil spill, we are concerned that the bill goes too far," Cruise Lines International stated in its letter. "The Death on the High Seas Act expansion proposed in the bill would have sweeping consequences because the Act applies to all deaths arising beyond U.S. waters, including incidents involving foreign nationals. Furthermore, non-pecuniary damage awards, which are expanded under the bill, are unpredictable. These claims are inherently difficult to value and vary dramatically from case to case."
The House, however, passed the bill on a voice vote. As Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., said to his colleagues before the bill's passage, "When it comes to compensating victims' families, current laws are inconsistent, lax and encourage companies to take risks -- gambling with the lives of workers in the process," he said. "Today, we have the opportunity to change those laws, and the SPILL Act does exactly that."
The SPILL Act also updated another maritime liability law by repealing the Limitation of Liability Act, the 1851 law that allows Transocean to claim it is only responsible for $27 million in damages, the current worth of its now-destroyed rig.
The bill now moves to the Senate. The Chamber said it will continue to lobby against the measure, though it wouldn't give specifics on its strategy moving forward.