The U.S. government has finally entered the litigation fray over the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Eight months after oil began spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Wednesday that the Department of Justice has filed civil claims against BP, Transocean, and seven other defendants over the disaster.
The government’s 27-page complaint, filed in New Orleans federal district court, alleges that BP and the other defendants failed to ensure the safety of the well, and seeks compensation for clean-up costs and damages under the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, and other federal environmental laws. The complaint notes that federal laws subject each defendant to a penalty of up to $4,300 for each barrel of oil spilled if the spill was the result of gross negligence or misconduct. And considering that government scientists estimated in August that about 4.9 million barrels of oil were released as a result of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, we’re talking about more than $20 billion in potential exposure — for each defendant.
In a statement, the DOJ said the suit will become part of the federal Gulf oil spill MDL that’s been pending before New Orleans federal district court judge Carl Barbier since August. Assistant AG Tony West told reporters Wednesday that the government would coordinate discovery with the MDL plaintiffs’ lawyers. (He also said the civil case does not preclude criminal charges stemming from the oil spill; the DOJ’s parallel criminal investigation is ongoing.)
So what do the lawyers on the MDL plaintiffs steering committee think about the government joining the case? Rhon Jones of Beasley Allen told us the DOJ suit is undeniably “a positive development for the plaintiffs,” but he also said it’s significant because it confirms his (not-so-surprising) opinion that litigation is the only means of holding BP and other defendants fully accountable for the spill.
“If the United States government found it necessary to sue, then I think every state is going to find that to be the case,” said Jones, who just so happens to represent Alabama, the only state aside from Louisiana that has already sued BP and other spill defendants. “It does confirm my suspicion that any claimants of any size are going to need to go to court.”
Kirkland & Ellis, which is representing BP in the MDL, referred our call to a BP spokesman, who didn’t respond to a message Wednesday. The last time the U.S. government went up against BP, in a pair of criminal cases involving a refinery explosion in Texas and two pipeline leaks in Alaska, BP had no shortage of outside counsel, calling on lawyers from Kirkland, Vinson & Elkins, Baker Botts, Sullivan & Cromwell, and Jones Day, among other firms.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Litigation Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.