77 More Oil-Spill Claims Against BP (Courthouse News Service)

By: Sabrina Canfield

Seventy-one boat owners have joined the thousands of Gulf Coast residents who've sued BP, claiming it owes them money for chartering their boats in its Vessels of Opportunity clean-up. And six Florida police officers filed complaints against BP and Halliburton, saying they lost their jobs because their salaries were funded by tourism, which was devastated by the oil spill.

The 71 Gulf Coast boat owners who let BP hire their ships for its Vessels of Opportunity program called the program a corrupt conspiracy that left "thousands of participants ... holding the bag for millions of dollars of unpaid services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations." And they say BP intended it that way.

The plaintiffs say BP touted its Vessels of Opportunity (VoO) program as a public relations gimmick, but it "was marred by mismanagement, corruption and broken promises," and that BP and its co-conspirators "intended to underpay VoO participants." Steve Olen, a partner with the Mobile firm Cunningham Bounds, which filed the lawsuit in Mobile County Court, Ala., told Courthouse News that the law firm has filed three previous lawsuits, each with nearly 100 plaintiffs. Altogether, the firm represents about 350 Vessels of Opportunity plaintiffs.

Olen said all the complaints allege not only breach of contract, but also misrepresentation.

"BP told thousands of people: 'You're on standby. Wait for our call,'" Olen said.

Then BP never called. Most plaintiffs were put on standby in early to mid July 2010, before the well was even capped, Olen said. In addition to failing to pay wages, the defendants reneged on promises to repair damage to the plaintiffs' boats and failed to pay for decontamination after the boats were used for cleanup, he said.

"We've seen an awful lot of folks whose boats were damaged by the VoO program, and BP hasn't paid," Olen said.

The new complaint states: "BP, Parsons Corporation, Danos & Curole [Staffing] and the individual defendants have engaged in an illegal and unlawful conspiracy to defraud plaintiffs and to underpay plaintiffs for services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations related to the VoO program and the oil spill response. ..."Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP established the VoO program as part of BP's response to the oil spill. Publicly, BP claimed that the VoO program would help clean up the Gulf Coast and would provide money to people affected by the oil spill. Once implemented, the VoO program was marred by mismanagement, corruption and broken promises. As a result, when the VoO program was concluded, thousands of participants, including plaintiffs, were left holding the bag for millions of dollars for unpaid services, equipment, materials, repairs and decontaminations."

It adds: "In order to effectively implement the VoO program, BP and the other defendants had to convince vessel owners, captains and crew members that they would receive more money through the VoO program than if they sat idle at the dock or pursued other employment or income opportunities."

But that didn't happen, the boat owners say.

Their lead counsel is George Finkbohner III with Cunningham Bounds. In the six complaints against BP and Halliburton in Leon County Court, Tallahassee, former Panama City Beach police Officer Clayton Jordan and five others say they lost their jobs because of the 290 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

The officers say their employer, "the City of Panama Beach, is highly dependent on revenues generated, both directly and indirectly, from the provision of goods and services to tourists and out-of-town visitors to fund its municipal operations, including the City Police department. The 'tourist trade,' in turn, is wholly dependent on the lure of Panama City Beach's white sugar sand beaches and emerald Gulf waters and opportunities for recreation and relaxation which are the amenities of the Gulf of Mexico's marine and coastal environments."

The laid-off police officers say not just the actual pollution from the oil spill, but even "perceived" pollution, killed their employment.

"Panama City Beach has no natural attributes which would attract industry, commerce or tourists except its white sand beaches and Gulf waters. In addition, Panama City Beach has no ad valorem tax, and, therefore, city funding and operations are almost entirely dependent on revenues derived from tourist related sources.

"As a foreseeable consequence and proximate cause of the spill, the coastal waters, beaches, estuaries, tidal flats and lands adjoining the seacoast of Panama City Beach were contaminated by pollutants and were perceived by tourists and out-of-town visitors as contaminated by pollutants," the officers say.

They seek punitive damages for negligence, strict liability for ultra-hazardous activity and violations of the Florida Pollutant Discharge Prevention and Control Act.

"Defendants BP and Halliburton engaged in conduct so reckless, willful, wanton and in such utter and flagrant disregard for the safety and health of the public and the environment in their activities leading up to and/or during the blowout, explosions, fire and spill, as alleged herein, that an award of punitive damages against them at the highest possible level is warranted and necessary to impose effective and optimal punishment and deterrence. Plaintiff, society and the environment cannot afford and should never be exposed to the risks of another disaster of the magnitude caused by defendants' misconduct herein."

"BP focused primarily on profit while disregarding public and environmental health and safety while undertaking its ultra-hazardous activities on the Deepwater Horizon by performing a critical well pressure test with untrained and unqualified personnel and by callously ignoring and/or misrepresenting 'red flag' pressure test results."

The plaintiffs are Clayton Jordan, Nicholas Tomlinson, Michael Melton, Jeffrey Heath, Emily Melton and Wayne Maddox.

The complaints were filed by Douglas Lyons with Lyons and Farrar in Tallahassee.