Indeed, it is likely that the legal battle will play out in a number of courts. Already, the companies involved - BP, Transocean, Halliburton, Cameron and others - face dozens of lawsuits.

And as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, more are likely to follow.

YUKI NOGUCHI: To begin with, BP and Transocean face wrongful-death lawsuits brought by families of some of the 11 victims who died in the blast, as well as ones brought by those who were injured.

Houston lawyer Kurt Arnold represents the family of one who died and others who suffered burns and broken backs.

Mr. KURT ARNOLD (Lawyer): It's hard for you just to go right back out there and work. But a lot of these guys live in small towns, and so there's really no other alternative employment.

NOGUCHI: The companies face plenty of other potential class-action suits brought by fishermen, restaurants, charter boat companies and even waterfront homeowners.

Stuart Smith is a lawyer who filed a suit on behalf of hundreds of fishermen and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. He says BP has hired fishermen to work to try to contain the spill.

Mr. STUART SMITH (Lawyer): Well, they have to put food on the table, and the only thing they have to work with is their boats, and their boats can't fish.

NOGUCHI: But the chemicals used to disperse the oil are also dangerous. And Smith says the companies could face additional personal injury litigation related to the cleanup in the future.

The legal spectacle resulting from the spill could spread as wide and as deep as the slick itself. Municipalities could sue for lost tax revenues. Shipping companies could sue if traffic along the Mississippi River gets disrupted.

Zygmunt Plater chaired the legal task force for a special commission in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez tanker spill there in 1989.

Mr. ZYGMUNT PLATER (Chairman, State of Alaska Oil Spill Commission's Legal Task Force): The Gulf coastline population is 10 times, 20 times more populated than the coastline of Alaska, and the economy is many times greater than the maritime economy of Alaska.

NOGUCHI: Plater says there were 17 classes of lawsuits filed against Exxon in connection with that spill, each category representing thousands of aggrieved parties. In the end, those parties collectively received about $500 million in compensation. Plus, Exxon paid the same amount in punitive damages.

For the Gulf spill, the legal complication likely won't end there. Of course, again today, BP pledged to cover the cost of cleanup and what it calls legitimate claims of damage. But Plater says BP will most certainly try to collect some of that money from the other companies involved in construction and operation of the rig.

Mr. PLATER: Given the fact that there is so much money involved and so much blame that could be argued back and forth, it's clear that though BP will pay, it will have various contribution suits to various other people that can be pointed to as wrongdoers.

NOGUCHI: Resolving those suits will probably take many years. And then there is the question of how much BP is legally liable to pay for economic damages. There, interpretations of the law vary.

A 1990 law passed after the Exxon disaster, called the Oil Pollution Act, caps some of BP's liabilities at $75 million, a figure so low it prompted some Democrats in Congress to propose retroactively raising that cap to $10 billion.

But Charles Ebinger says there are several current laws that could apply to this case. Ebinger is director of energy security research at the Brookings Institution. He estimates BP's liability under the law is capped at about $3 billion.

With oil still pouring into the Gulf, it's hard to estimate what the cleanup will cost. Charles Ebinger says it could reach $20 billion.

Mr. CHARLES EBINGER (Director of Energy Security Research, Brookings Institution): But legally, I'm not sure that BP would actually have to incur those high losses from a purely legal perspective.

Professor JEFFREY FISHER (Law Professor, Stanford University): Even if you end up getting money at the end, it's all too frequently too little, too late.

NOGUCHI: Jeffrey Fisher is a law professor at Stanford. He argued a case in the Supreme Court on behalf of Exxon Valdez plaintiffs trying to collect higher punitive damages from the company. After nearly two decades of fighting, his side lost.

Prof. FISHER: Maritime law is actually quite stingy when it comes to making plaintiffs whole in ways that go beyond hard financial damages.

NOGUCHI: Many plaintiffs in Alaska, he says, felt they ended up losing much more than they reclaimed.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from