Hotels, cruise lines, other businesses and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi have joined a frenzy of litigants to beat a deadline for filing federal lawsuits for damage blamed on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 40 lawsuits were filed in the Southern District of Florida alone against BP Plc to beat the expiration of a three-year statute of limitations for filing spill-related civil actions.
"There’s a whole trickle-down effect," said plaintiffs attorney Ervin Gonzalez, a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables who filed 15 lawsuits against BP in the last month. "The seafood industry impacts tourism, and then tourism affects people who sell clothing, people who sell souvenirs and the accountants whose clients are those businesses. Everybody who has a relationship with the businesses are affected. They are dependent on each other."
The lawsuits were filed against various BP companies and often included the operator of the offshore oil rig, Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc., and Halliburton Energy Services Co., which did the questionable cement work.
A federal judge in January approved BP’s guilty plea to manslaughter charges in the deaths of 11 rig workers. The company also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the disaster as 4.9 million barrels poured into the ocean, some of which made its way to U.S. shores.
BP agreed to pay a record $4 billion in criminal penalties.
The oil giant also set up a $7.8 billion settlement fund for claim by those affected by the spill. Plaintiffs suing in federal court have opted out of that process.
A multidistrict litigation action under way in New Orleans before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will settle common issues in the civil lawsuits. Spill lawsuits would return to their original jurisdictions for trial if necessary.
Some of the lawsuits came in after the April 22 deadline, such as the one filed by Fort Lauderdale-based Celebration Cruise Operator Inc. It’s unknown how these lawsuits will be treated, but U.S. District Judge William Zloch in Fort Lauderdale stayed one such case with the expectation it will be swept up into the MDL.
A lawsuit was filed April 24 by Fort Lauderdale’s Celebration Cruise Operator, which shares the same address as Celebration Cruise Line. The company operates the Bahamas Celebration cruise ship.
"Following the spill, Celebration Cruise Line lost 5,636 in lost package sales which, in turn, result in Celebration Cruise Operator, Inc.’s loss of revenue for 1,860 in cabin sales" plus lost onboard sales, the lawsuit said.
Frank M. Petosa, a Morgan & Morgan partner in Plantation who represents Celebration, could not be reached for comment by deadline.
In a lawsuit filed by Gonzalez, The Surfcomber Hotel in Miami Beach claimed the oil spill pushed down reservations even though the spilled oil never touched South Florida’s shores.
Lawsuits also have been filed by public agencies including the Palm Beach County School Board and Key West. First State Bank of the Florida Keys is among the plaintiffs filing near the deadline.
Bondi also filed a lawsuit seeking $5.5 billion on behalf of the state, naming BP and Halliburton as prime defendants, in the Northern District of Florida.
Gonzalez, a seasoned attorney in mass torts and class actions who sits on the plaintiffs steering committee, said he never has seen a single liability action affect such a variety of plaintiffs.
"This is the worst man-made disaster I have ever heard of, far worse than the Exxon Valdez because of the number of people involved and the damage to business in so many different states," he said. "It was a catastrophic event that hurt the environment in ways we are not going to know for years."