House Panel Hears From Rig Victims, Company

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the financial liabilities of the Gulf oil spill, lawmakers heard from survivors of the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster, and from representatives of the companies responsible for the rig's construction and operation.

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In Washington today the House Judiciary Committee took on the issue of liability in the Gulf spill. Survivors of the Deepwater Horizon disaster told stories tinged with grief and anger. Seated at the long table beside them, representatives of the companies responsible for the rig's construction and operation.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi has the story.

YUKI NOGUCHI: First, before we talk about money, let's talk about Gordon Jones. Twenty-eight and married, days before he went offshore to work, he gave his son his first golf lesson. Gordon Jones was the youngest son of Keith Jones.

Mr. KEITH JONES: Everybody liked Gordon. People who met him liked him and the more they got to know him, the more they liked about him.

NOGUCHI: A picture of Gordon Jones cradling his older son Stafford at birth appeared on a screen, another with his wife, Melissa. And one of Maxwell Gordon Jones, a baby born two weeks ago after his father perished on the rig.

Mr. JONES: The last picture depicts Gordon's presence in the delivery room, limited only to his picture.

NOGUCHI: And now, Keith Jones says let's talk about the money. Jones, himself a trial attorney, told the committee that current law does not make companies pay just compensation for their workers.

Mr. JONES: You must make certain they are exposed to pain in the only place they can feel it - their bank accounts. As a friend recently said, make them hurt where their heart would be if they had a heart.

NOGUCHI: Survivors said Transocean, their employer, cut back on personnel despite workers complaining of overwork. On the day the rig exploded, they endured searing heat and black smoke and screams of terror. Steven Stone, a worker on the rig, also complained about the way he was treated after the accident.

Mr. STEVEN STONE: Also, I never would've expected from my company Transocean to treat me like a criminal after I had survived such a disaster by making me submit to a drug test.

NOGUCHI: For the company seated at the same table, it was, to say the least, a tough act to follow. With no conclusive evidence about what caused the explosion, the representatives referred back to the legal language they felt applied.

For James Ferguson, deputy general counsel for Halliburton, that meant pointing to its contract with Transocean.

Mr. JAMES FERGUSON (Deputy General Counsel, Halliburton): It's customary for the well owner to take responsibility for certain potentially catastrophic events.

NOGUCHI: Cameron, maker of the blowout preventer that failed in this instance, also denied liability.

Transocean lawyer Rachel Clingman acknowledged the company bears responsibility for some liabilities, although it recently asked a court to limit its liability to less than $27 million. And that left BP. BP vice president Darryl Willis said the company has paid over $37 million in claims to date. As a Louisiana native, Willis told the committee he cared deeply about the region and helping its people.

Mr. DARRYL WILLIS (Vice President, BP): What BP has been most concerned about is getting money into the hands of the people who are hurting and been hurt by this oil spill sooner rather than later.

NOGUCHI: But what about secondary victims of the disaster? For example, what about the people who work in Louisiana's famous seafood restaurants, asked Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen?

Mr. WILLIS: Our goal through this whole process is to be reasonable, is to be efficient and to be fair.

Representative STEVE COHEN (Democrat, Tennessee): I got what you're saying...

Mr. WILLIS: And to do the right thing.

Rep. COHEN: I got what you're saying. It's just going to be tough 'cause to do the right thing, you're really going to have to take over that state and part of Mississippi and part of Alabama, I guess.

NOGUCHI: Because, Cohen says, the ripple effects will have broad economic effects for a long time to come.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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