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Legal Drama Over Gulf Oil Spill Could Last Years

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Legal Drama Over Gulf Oil Spill Could Last Years

Legal Drama Over Gulf Oil Spill Could Last Years

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This week marks the first anniversary of a Gulf Coast nightmare. One year ago, Wednesday, an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig as it drilled in the Gulf. The rig sank, setting off a gusher that would last nearly three months.

Legal issues over who's to blame and who must pay for the disaster are just beginning to reach the courts, and NPR's Carrie Johnson has this update on the spill's legal fallout.

CARRIE JOHNSON: If you lined up everybody who's suing over last year's oil spill, you'd see this - restaurant owners, wildlife supporters, wedding planners and families of some of the 11 workers who died on the oil rig. Hundreds of lawsuits are moving through a federal court in New Orleans. Judges combined the cases to make it easier to handle them.

Mr. BRIAN BARR (Attorney): The court has put us on a very aggressive schedule.

JOHNSON: That's Brian Barr. He and about a dozen other plaintiffs' attorneys have been holed up in conference rooms since the start of the year. They're taking depositions of executives and engineers from BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron. Sometimes, they question two or three people a day.

Mr. BARR: It's one of those situations where the people of the Gulf Coast really need help now. And so, we couldn't wait.

JOHNSON: Lawyers for those plaintiffs have the special advantage of subpoena power. So they got access to more emails. And they're interviewing more insiders from BP and other companies involved in the spill.

Mr. BARR: They don't come out and say, you're going to kill a bunch of people, but they do say, this is a very dangerous well, and we know we are dealing with a very narrow drilling margin. And if we keep going like we're going, we're facing severe consequences.

JOHNSON: It's still not clear how high up the corporate ladder those documents may lead. Former BP chief executive Tony Hayward will sit for a deposition in June. A few corporate managers and engineers declined to take part in the depositions. They cited their right against self-incrimination.

And if you know anything about high-stakes lawsuits, it won't surprise you to hear there's a lot of finger-pointing. Transocean, which owns the sunken rig, says it's responsible for paying death settlements and some personal injury claims. But most of the liability, they say, should fall on BP.

Brian Kennedy is a spokesman for Transocean.

Mr. BRIAN KENNEDY (Spokesman, Transocean): BP, the owner and operator of the Macondo well itself, is responsible for environmental damages associated with the release of oil from the Macondo well. So given those facts, we believe that BP will do the right thing and fully honor its legal obligations.

JOHNSON: BP didn't want to respond to that on tape. In a written statement, BP says the tragedy happened because of many failings by many different companies. And BP says the courts will decide how much Transocean and the other companies involved will have to pay. Tens of billions of dollars are at stake.

But law professors say the cases against BP, Transocean and Halliburton are no sure thing, especially claims by hotels and restaurants that didn't actually get smothered in oil. Anthony Sebok teaches at Cardozo Law School in New York City.

Professor ANTHONY SEBOK (Cardozo School of Law): It's not like the oil touched everybody. The oil stopped the flow of commerce, and that had effects upstream. But that's what we call pure economic loss. Pure economic loss cases can be very hard.

JOHNSON: There's another legal headache for BP that involves economic losses: Big pension funds that lost a lot of money when BP's stock price fell by half last April are suing in a Houston federal court. Thomas DiNapoli oversees the retirement fund for New York state workers. He says it owned 19 million shares of BP at the time of the spill.

Mr. THOMAS DINAPOLI (New York State Comptroller): They represented that safety and risk mitigation was a priority and what happened with the gulf spill, it indicates that from our point of view that was a misrepresentation.

JOHNSON: Lawyers for stockholders like DiNapoli haven't got access to internal corporate information just yet. But if their cases are moving more slowly, they are moving, part of a long parade that could be passing through the courts for years.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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