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The Value of Experienced Counsel Following Maritime Disasters

The recent explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling platform owned and operated by Houston-based company Transocean, has left 11 oil rig workers missing and several more injured. As the families of those 11 workers continue to wait, the chances of rescue workers finding survivors are dwindling.

The injuries sustained in oil rig explosions can be horrible– and often fatal. At this point, responsibility becomes very important. Family members want to know what happened and why; their best asset in the search for answers is help from attorneys with experience in handling civil cases stemming from these offshore catastrophes.

The Search for Answers

Unfortunately, many oil rig explosions are preventable and investigation in civil suits reveals that they are usually caused by human error or administrative oversight.

This was the case in the explosion of the Piper Alpha, the deadliest oil rig explosion in history. Miscommunication, poor safety processes and inadequate fire walls contributed to the explosions and ensuing fire, which killed more than 160 men aboard the rig. This is a case with which
Mike Doyle

is intimately familiar, having served as an attorney for victim lawsuits following the Piper Alpha tragedy.

In 2008 six crewmembers aboard the Jillian Morrison were injured in an explosion that took place while the vessel was anchored off the coast of Louisiana. The Jillian Morrison is a dive support vessel, and the crewmembers had been working on a pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico . Doyle currently represents several of those who were injured in the blast.

Transocean is no stranger to lawsuits, having been sued in the past by several victims of oil rig accidents. Transocean’s location in Houston means that they are no stranger to Doyle, either: Maritime attorneys at the firm have worked on behalf of several of these victims, as well as others injured by oil rig operator negligence and other preventable mistakes

Trying to get the upper hand in litigation with victims, companies such as Transocean will often preemptively file suit against the victims, hoping to control the forum in which potential cases are tried. At least one lawsuit stemming from this accident has already been filed in Houston.

Next Step in the Process

Cases of this type are complex, and will require extensive preparation and investigation. Currently, the rig is still spilling oil into the Gulf; we would anticipate that, as soon as the situation had been stabilized, federal and state authorities — including the United States Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service — will begin investigating the cause of the accident. Counsel for the injured workers and their families will play an integral role in this investigation. It is important that those who were injured in the blast or the families of those killed retain experienced counsel as soon as possible.

Doyle Files Lawsuit Against BP Products North America on Behalf of Seaman Under General Maritime Law

On May 7, 2010, Doyle filed a lawsuit in Harris County district court against BP Products North America, Inc. on behalf of a surveyor injured in a ship-to-ship transfer off the coast of Panama. Doyle’s client is a Jones Act seaman and the lawsuit is based on well-settled general maritime law that BP Products North America owed the seaman a duty to provide a safe transfer, including an adequate and competent crew and proper equipment for the transfer. As a result of the faulty transfer, the seaman suffered serious injuries to his spine. Doyle specializes in Jones Act and other Maritime cases and is proud to enforce this injured worker’s rights.

Punitive Damages in Maritime Law: Exxon Shipping v. Baker

A recently proposed piece of legislation would attempt to undo a Supreme Court decision limiting punitive damages available to plaintiffs who are harmed due to an oil spill. The 2008 decision was a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Originally, the plaintiffs sued the Exxon Shipping Co. and were awarded $2.5 billion in punitive damages.

The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court, which decreased the amount of the award to $500 million. The court’s ruling imposes a 1-to-1 ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages. The Exxon Shipping suit resulted in compensatory damages of just one-fifth the punitive damages awarded. The ruling was based on common law, but parts of the opinion suggest that the same result could have been reached based on constitutional grounds.

The proposed legislation would do away with the mandated ratio and allow litigants to obtain punitive damages without regard to the actual amount of compensatory damages. Legal scholars are unsure if Congress has the authority to put such a measure into action. Congress has authority to overturn the court’s ruling but may not be able to do so in this case for constitutional reasons.

Additionally, in light of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is unclear if Congress could give the law retroactive effect, punishing those responsible. Often when a statute is enacted and results in monetary damages, the courts are unlikely to allow the law to be enforced against acts that occurred prior to the enactment.

Four senators have introduced the bill, but the Senate has not yet cast its vote. If it passes in the Senate, the bill must still pass through the House of Representatives as well as withstand legal attacks from the bill’s opponents before having any effect on those involved in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosions and the ensuing Gulf oil spill.

Oil Spill Still Uncontained

Since late April, when the Deepwater Horizon suffered an explosion killing 11 and sinking the oil rig, BP has employed various strategies to stop oil from leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. None of those efforts have stopped the oil, which is now thought to be leaking at the rate of about 15,000 barrels per day. The most recent estimates are much higher than the 1,000 barrels per day originally suggested.

While the numbers are not certain, it is estimated that 20 to 30 million gallons have already leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. The wildlife, shipping industry, beaches and ecosystem of the southwest coasts of the United States are at risk of severe and permanent damage. To put that amount of oil into context, approximately 11 million gallons of oil were spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

BP’s first attempt to stop the leak was to cap the well with a four-story dome. Engineers attempted to install the dome 5,000 feet below the surface, but were unable to achieve their goal due to the depths of the water. Next, BP tried a “junk shot,” which involved shooting garbage and debris into the well to clog it and stop the leak. The junk shot, along with a second cap, were also unsuccessful.

The most recent attempt to cap the leaking well is called a top kill maneuver. This involves pumping a very thick drilling fluid into the well to plug it. Unfortunately, this method has not worked, either. The next step will be to attempt to cap the well once again, now that a riser pipe has been cut and severed from the well.

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