By: Brendan Kirby
MOBILE, Alabama — A court filing Thursday in New Orleans could speed litigation by hundreds of Gulf Coast boat owners who participated in BP PLC’s Vessels of Opportunity program following last year’s oil spill.
An attorney for a steering committee of lawyers managing thousands of lawsuits asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to rule that the boat owners are entitled to a judgment in their favor as a matter of law.
If Barbier grants the motion, it would leave disputes over the Vessels of Opportunity on other grounds, but still would be a big win, according to one lawyer.
“That would go a long way toward compelling a settlement of those cases,” said Adam Milam, who has several cases pending before Barbier.
More than 200 boat owners and businesses that offered vessels to help clean up the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water have filed lawsuits in Mobile accusing BP and other defendants of misleading them and failing to live up to promises to pay them for down time.
“Once implemented, the VOO program was marred by mismanagement, corruption and broken promises,” states the latest of those suits, filed in Mobile County Circuit Court last week on behalf of 93 plaintiffs from Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Those plaintiffs include the widow of a charter boat captain from Foley who committed suicide in June of last year.
BP spokesman Ray Melick would not answer questions about the lawsuit but sent this statement: “BP continues to meet its commitments to the participants in the Vessels of Opportunity program but will defend itself vigorously against all unsupported claims of non-payment for work, decontamination or repair.”
Mobile mega-law firm Cunningham Bounds, which represents the plaintiffs in this case as well as 188 in a pair of other suits, wants to keep the cases out of federal court.
“We are fighting hard to have them sent back to state court,” said Steve Olen, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Milam, too, has argued that the VOO lawsuits are different from the other civil actions that have been sent to New Orleans.
“We believe the VOO court cases have everything to do with BP living up to its contractual obligations and nothing to do with who may or may not be responsible for lack of control over the well,” he said.
Olen said be believes that the cases would move much faster in Mobile County Circuit Court than in the New Orleans federal court, where Barbier is handling pretrial matters for some 100,000 lawsuits of the oil spill.
The Cunningham Bounds suits name Los Angeles-based Parsons Corp. and Montgomery-based Danos & Curole Staffing LLC, along with several people who worked for them and BP. Parsons helped manage the VOO program for BP.
Attorneys for those companies could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Olen said contracts signed by the boat captains required them to remain on call, and promised that BP would pay them for that down time. But the company failed to pay them for 30 days or more, he said.
“The primary claim that everybody has is they were told, ‘You’re on contract, you’re on standby. But we’re going to call you back out,’” he said.
Olen said a significant number of boats sustained damage that BP did not pay to repair. In some cases, he said, the damage was as high as $70,000.
“Some of them have major damages — to the point where they can’t use their boats,” he said.
BP failed to decontaminate boats in some cases, according the lawsuits. Olen argued that BP was obligated to pay for repairs and decontamination even if the contacts did not specify those payments because the company made numerous promises that it would. Those promises included radio, TV and print advertisement and town hall-style meetings with boat owners, he said.
The civil complaints allege that thousands of participants “were left holding the bag for millions of dollars for unpaid services, equipment materials, repairs and decontaminations.”
BP also falsely promised that the money paid to participants would not be used to offset their claims for economic damages caused by the spill, according to the complaints.