June 1, 2010

What a mess this is going to be. But look on the bright side: Until now, legal firms were laying off. Now they'll be hiring for years to come!

Fishermen and property owners along the Gulf Coast have filed hundreds of lawsuits since April against oil company BP and its contractors amid a legal landscape that has changed dramatically since the Exxon Valdez tanker spill sullied Alaska's Prince William Sound 21 years ago.

The Valdez spill prompted Congress to pass the 1990 Oil Pollution Act — intended to give fishermen and others harmed by such spills a quicker route for settling their claims — and nearly two decades of litigation over that spill also has redefined centuries-old maritime law on the issue.

Now, as hundreds of spill victims test those laws, attorneys say many questions remain about how far the protections will go and how long it will take to compensate the fishermen, landholders and beachside cities that have suffered from the spill.

"There are an unbelievable array of issues in this case," said Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who argued the Exxon Valdez case for the commercial fishermen and other Alaska businesses before the U.S. Supreme Court. "One of the most painful things about the Exxon case was that it took us 20 years to get the case finished and get the money in the pockets of the victims. One can't help but wonder if the same thing is going to happen here."

Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded April 20 and sank two days later, already has asked a judge to limit claims against it to $27 million under an 1851 law that limits liability. A judge has suspended more than 100 claims against Transocean until that issue is decided.

[...] Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the company the Coast Guard says is responsible for a spill must pay up to $1 billion to clean it up and repair natural resource damage and up to $75 million in economic damages to compensate victims for lost income.

BP and its contractors could be forced to pay even more than that if the federal government's investigation finds widespread negligence, deliberate misconduct or violations of federal regulations.

The U.S. government also could bring criminal charges under the Clean Water Act, Migratory Bird Act, Endangered Species Act and other laws, Fisher says. The Justice Department did not return a call for comment.

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