BP Oil Spill Lawsuits and Legal Issues

The BP oil spill affected thousands of people and businesses in the Gulf region. Here's a look at the legal landscape since 2010.

By , J.D.

Last Updated: 12/30/2015

The April 2010 BP oil spill and its impact will be felt in the Gulf of Mexico region for decades. In the months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, it's estimated that almost five million barrels of oil gushed from the seabed and into the Gulf, making it the worst oil spill in history. After the flow of oil stopped, the scope of the catastrophe came into focus, and regulatory agencies as well as the courts started to have their say.

This article looks at some of the legal issues raised by the BP oil spill, including options for businesses and individuals affected by the disaster, and the latest developments concerning sanctions against BP. (For in-depth information on filing a claim with BP's $20 billion compensation fund, see Nolo's article BP Oil Spill: Filing a Claim With BP's Compensation Fund.)

The BP Oil Spill: Types of Lawsuits

The BP oil spill prompted the filing of thousands of lawsuits. Businesses and workers saw their livelihoods suffer or even disappear in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas. Families and individuals in the Gulf region worried about the health hazards posed by the chemicals used to disperse and clean up the oil. And, with its dubious distinction as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, the BP oil spill inflicted immeasurable devastation on the Gulf's coastline, wetlands, wildlife, and ecosystems.

Here's a look at the different kinds of lawsuits filed over the BP oil spill (with links to more information from Nolo where relevant).

  • Lost business profits and individual income losses. Thousands of businesses and workers in the Gulf region filed lawsuits against BP, seeking repayment for profits and income that were lost because of the oil spill. These plaintiffs included companies and employees in the commercial fishing, shrimp, and oyster industry; and charter boat operators, hotels, tourist attractions, rental property owners, and other businesses in popular resort areas. Many of these businesses and individuals were also eligible to file a claim with BP under a fund set up to help those whose financial livelihood suffered because of the spill. (See "BP Compensation Fund: Filing a Claim," below.)
  • Environmental damage. A number of lawsuits were filed over the environmental damage inflicted by the spill -- including damage to coastline, wetlands, wildlife, and other harm to the ecosystem in the Gulf region (and related fines and cleanup orders from the federal government).
  • Property damage. The BP oil spill damaged commercial, residential, and undeveloped property along the Gulf coastline, as well as a number of small islands offshore. Some property damage suits have been filed over the use of dispersants to aid in the cleanup of the spill. Property damage cases may be handled by filing a claim through the $20 billion compensation fund set up by BP. (See "BP Compensation Fund: Filing a Claim," below.)
  • Health problems and health risks from oil and chemical dispersants. Residents in the Gulf region filed lawsuits over the health problems and health risks caused by the presence of oil on or near coastal property and the dangers posed by the potentially toxic chemicals that have been used to disperse the spilled oil. (Learn more about these kinds of toxic chemical cases in Nolo's Toxic Torts FAQ.)
  • Injuries and health risks from cleanup. A number of people who went to work cleaning up and burning off oil in the Gulf in the months after the spill filed claims for health problems allegedly linked to the cleanup (including headaches, nausea, and throat irritation).
  • Wrongful death and injury claims by rig workers and their families. Some families of the 11 workers killed in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon filed wrongful death lawsuits against BP and Transocean. (Learn more about wrongful death lawsuits in Nolo's article Wrongful Death Claims: Overview). Those companies have also been sued for negligence by the surviving drill rig workers who suffered injury that day.
  • BP shareholder lawsuits. Dozens of investors and pension funds filed suit against BP, accusing the company of misleading shareholders and causing BP share values to plummet. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is also investigating whether BP insiders profited from trading based on nonpublic information in the weeks and months after the spill.

Oil Spill Lawsuits: Who Is Being Sued?

When it comes to lawsuits over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP is front and center because of its high-profile role in the disaster -- not to mention its deep pockets and its reputation as a global business power. Some estimates had BP setting aside about $32 billion to cover cleanup, legal claims, fines, and other costs related to the spill.

But there are other parties that might be on the legal hook and are already targeted in lawsuits over the spill. These include:

  • Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig (and which was found partially liable for the spill in a 2011 report by the federal government)
  • Halliburton, the well contractor (which was also found to share liability in that same 2011 report), and
  • Cameron International, the company that manufactured the underwater well's blowout preventer, which apparently failed to function as planned and didn't do anything to prevent or lessen the oil spill.

Consolidated Lawsuits: MDL and Class Actions

Because of the sheer volume of lawsuits and the variety of business and individuals affected by the BP oil spill, many lawsuits were grouped together under a process known as multidistrict litigation, and through class actions.

Multidistrict litigation (MDL). In August 2010, a federal judicial panel decided that most of the hundreds of federal lawsuits stemming from the BP oil spill will be consolidated in federal court in New Orleans, under a process known as multidistrict litigation (MDL). Specifically, the BP oil spill MDL will be handled by Judge Carl Barbier in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana (located in New Orleans). Check out the official website for the BP oil spill MDL at www.laed.uscourts.gov/OilSpill/OilSpill.htm. (To learn more about MDL and what happens when cases like these are consolidated, read Nolo's article Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) for Drug Lawsuits and Other Cases.)

Class actions. A number of BP oil spill lawsuits have been filed as class actions -- including negligence claims against BP and shareholder suits filed on behalf of BP investors. And more class actions are likely on the way, provided there is enough similarity among the plaintiffs and the damages they suffered.

Findings and Fines Against BP

BP has faced countless regulatory actions over the 2010 spill, and one of the biggest headlines came in 2015, when the company reached an agreement with five states and the U.S. Department of Justice to pay $18.7 billion in settlement over the spill and its effects.

BP Compensation Fund: Filing a Claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility

A few months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP announced that it had set up a $20 billion escrow fund that's primarily meant to compensate businesses and workers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas whose financial livelihood has suffered as a result of the BP oil spill disaster. Claims can also be filed for injuries and health problems linked to the spill, though the process for those kinds of claims may take longer (and claims for mental health problems caused by the spill likely won't be covered by the fund at all). For in-depth information on filing a claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (the independent administrator running the claims process), see Nolo's article BP Oil Spill: Filing a Claim With BP's Compensation Fund.

If you've lost business or personal income due to the oil spill, keep in mind that while filing a claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility may be a quick way to get money that can help keep your business's doors open or your bills paid on time, it may not be the best route in every case. Claims for a few thousand dollars may move through the process quickly, but BP considers any claim over $5,000 to be a "large loss" claim, and those claims are subject to a longer review process. Also, as a condition of receiving a lump-sum payment under the fund, you'll probably be asked to waive your right to file a lawsuit against BP and others (the waiver probably won't be a condition tied to the receipt of monthly "emergency" payments). It could be risky to accept a one-time payment now and waive your right to file a lawsuit when the scope of your financial losses may not be fully defined. And, finally, as more and more claimants get in line, there's no guarantee that the $20 billion fund will be enough to compensate everyone. Before filing a claim with the fund, consider talking to an attorney about all of your legal options.

Getting Help

For individuals and businesses that have suffered damages tied to the BP oil spill, it can be tough to know where to start. Should you file a claim under BP's $20 billion fund? Would a lawsuit be more effective? Is there an existing class action you could join? These are complex questions, and the legal landscape surrounding the BP oil spill can be tough to navigate on your own. You may want to talk with an experienced attorney about your case -- especially an attorney who has experience in cases involving damages caused by environmental disasters or familiarity with the BP claims process. You can use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to locate and talk to an attorney in your area.


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