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Hanna: BP should shut up, pay up

[Ed.’s Note: This column was first published the week of July 8, 2013. It’s republication is timely in light of BP reaching a monetary settlement with the Gulf Coast states that were adversely affected by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.]


If British Petroleum (BP) wants to act a fool, we have the French Quarter.  If BP believes it can play us for a fool, we have the courts.

And that’s where we Louisianians find ourselves today, in federal court in New Orleans battling a multi-billion dollar a year conglomerate headquartered in England.  And it would be that England-based oil giant that is responsible for wrecking people’s lives and businesses along the coastline and beyond from the Florida Panhandle to the Louisiana/Texas border. 

Let’s not forget about the 11 lives that were lost when BP’s Macondo oil well blew up off the Louisiana coastline in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf and delivering havoc to the Gulf’s delicate ecosystem and tarnishing beaches along the way.  The mishap is commonly referred to as Deepwater Horizon.

It was a monumental catastrophe to say the least.

Appearing earlier this week before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, BP argued the man who was appointed by the federal court to administer claims filed against the oil company in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon incident has been misinterpreting the terms of a class-action settlement.  Never mind that hundreds of lawyers and accountants representing BP and the attorneys representing individuals and businesses that were adversely affected by BP’s negligence agreed to the settlement.  In writing.  A contract, if you will.

There’s no question BP was negligent as far as Deepwater Horizon is concerned.  After all, the company pled guilty to it in federal court.  What remains unsettled would be the amount of money BP must pay — per the terms of its settlement — to the thousands of individuals and businesses that realized losses in the wake of Deepwater Horizon.  And therein lies the rub.

SAM HANNALast year, BP agreed to the “settlement” to limit its exposure from the incident in the Gulf.  The matter was handled in New Orleans before U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier.  The settlement didn’t happen overnight.  It was hammered out over months and months of negotiations among BP’s attorneys and accountants and some of the best plaintiff’s attorneys in the country, who, as you would expect, represent or will represent plaintiffs who incurred losses thanks to BP’s negligence. 

At the onset, BP estimated the settlement would cost the company some $7.8 billion.  But once claims started rolling in and money began to be dispersed, BP decided it didn’t like the settlement any longer.  All of a sudden, BP felt it was getting a raw deal, though, to date, the settlement has produced less than $2 billion in payouts to claimants. 

In March, BP took the matter up with Judge Barbier, whining about everything under the sun — from lawyers advertising for clients to file claims against BP to the amount of money some claimants were awarded under the terms of the settlement.  Never mind that BP bought advertising on television and in newspapers throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida claiming the company had more than fulfilled its obligation to clean up the mess it made in the first place. 

In his ruling on March 5, Judge Barbier — in so many words — told BP to grow up and live up to the settlement it had agreed to in order to limit its exposure in the wake of Deepwater Horizon.  You agreed to it, live with it, the judge said. 

So off to the 5th Circuit BP went in its latest attempt to weasel out of the settlement.  It was there, earlier this week that Theodore Olson, who served as solicitor general for President George W. Bush, argued on behalf of BP before the three-judge panel, which included Justice James L. Dennis, formerly of Monroe.  That would be the same Jim Dennis who cut his teeth at the Hudson, Potts, Bernstein law firm. 

Gauging by the remarks made by Justice Dennis and Justice Leslie H. Southwick of Jackson, Miss., BP should make plans to quit complaining about the settlement and start paying or petition the U.S. Supreme Court for relief.  Though the three-judge panel didn’t render a ruling this week, it will issue a ruling soon and it’s highly probable the ruling won’t be in BP’s favor.

Yet, it’s almost an affront for BP to seek relief from a settlement it agreed to, knowing the settlement would most likely save the company money in the long run.  All the while, individuals and businesses that suffered losses in the wake of Deepwater Horizon would get something out of it. 

Maybe BP is just greedy.

And maybe someone needs to explain to BP that the settlement it agreed to and the money it will pay out over the foreseeable future represents something a bit more sinister.  That is, if BP wants to continue doing business here, somebody’s got to be paid.

It might as well be us.

Sam Hanna is a state political writer

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