Gulf Residents, Businesses Entangled In Bitter Legal Battle

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Over the course of three months, the BP Macondo well gushed an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. One year since the explosion, hundreds of Gulf residents and business owners are still embroiled in a complex legal battle with BP and other companies involved. Host Michel Martin discusses the legal aftermath of the oil spill with Steve Korris, a reporter for The Louisiana Record.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, a new biography of Malcolm X has caused sharp divisions amongst the scholars who follow the activist's life and career. Now we hear from one of Malcolm's daughters in a few minutes. It's clearly an emotional subject for her, as well. We'll have that conversation coming up.

But first we want to talk for a few more minutes about some of the complicated legal issues that Sherry Anderson, the widow of one of the oil workers killed in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig raised, along with her attorney. So we've called Steve Korris. He is a reporter for the Louisiana Record. That is a journal that publishes public notices and covers legal issues in the state and he's with us now from St. Louis. Welcome, Steve, thanks for joining us.

Mr. STEVE KORRIS (Reporter, Louisiana Record): Thank you.

MARTIN: So I want to start with the first thing that Shelly Anderson and her attorney raised, that is probably puzzling to people, which is that she is being sued by Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon rig. Is she the only one? And why would that be?

Mr. KORRIS: No, Transocean has to serve this petition on everyone that might have a claim against it. And in the sense of being sued, it doesn't mean Transocean is looking for damages from her. It just means that they had to file a petition to limit their liability. And then let everyone know that they had filed it. And so when Mrs. Anderson got that petition, in a sense, yes, she was being sued. But they still recognized that they have a liability to her.

MARTIN: They're notifying her that they are exercising their rights under the law. If you could explain that.

Mr. KORRIS: But it's a very, very old law from 1851. The Limitation of Liability Act says that a vessel cannot have more liability than the value of the vessel itself and a judge in Texas ruled months ago that the value of the vessel was about $26 million. And if they are successful, then that is the absolute limit on what they will have to pay.

MARTIN: So she still could potentially recover some damages?

Mr. KORRIS: She could. Plus, there are so many other defendants in the case that she could recover from any or all of them.

MARTIN: Do you have an understanding of what it is that Mrs. Anderson is so upset about? As my understanding is, she's upset because she seems to fear that she will not recover anything or will not have enough money to raise her children.

Mr. KORRIS: Well, I heard her lawyer say that Transocean wanted to tie them up forever, to make her give up and go away and yet, actually, this limitation business is the first item on the agenda of Judge Carl Barbier down in New Orleans, who's responsible for all of this litigation. He has to figure out how and whether to apply that old law before he can do anything else. So there will be a trial in February strictly on this question of limitation and this very old law.

MARTIN: What is the scope of litigation going on at this point?

Mr. KORRIS: Judge Barbier has been assigned all the cases involving wrongful death and economic loss. And he has split those up into three or four different kinds of groups that he will manage according to different rules.

MARTIN: So there's a lot of litigation in this?

Mr. KORRIS: An unbelievable amount. There are 2,000 docket entries in 8 months, which means that about 12 times a day someone comes into his court with a stack of papers to file.

MARTIN: What is the relationship between this litigation that's going on and the claims fund that Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington attorney, who played a similar role in the 9/11 claims fund was appointed by the administration to oversee this claims fund that BP has contributed to?

Mr. KORRIS: Right.

MARTIN: How does this litigation relate to that claims fund?

Mr. KORRIS: Well, that's slowly evolving and there is some tension at this moment between Judge Barbier's court and the Gulf Coast claims facility. The Gulf Coast claims facility is strictly BP. They are what is called the responsible party.

So, the Gulf Coast claims facility has made some lawyers and clients very happy. And Mrs. Anderson praised Feinberg. But other lawyers and attorney generals of states are extremely critical of Feinberg and his facility. One of the sad things here, to me, is that this gigantic litigation dwarfs everything within it. And the wrongful death suits are mixed in with hundreds of others now. And in order to have these gigantic multidistrict lawsuits, the judge had to pick a small group of attorneys to run everything.

MARTIN: So the scope of the disaster is such that a lot of individual people's stories are getting lost.

Mr. KORRIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Steve Korris is a reporter for the Louisiana Record. That's a journal that covers the legal system and legal issues in Louisiana. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from his home office in St. Louis. Steve Korris, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. KORRIS: Thank you.

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