Fed Increases Liability Penalties for Oil Spills

gulf-oil-spillCleaning up oil spills may cost companies that are responsible for them more money now that the United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has increased the liability limit from $75 million to $134 million. That is a 79 percent increase and the highest amount that it can be raised to without Congress stepping in and changing how the legislation is written. However, this increase, which was proposed in February and will take effect in January, is good news to every offshore injury lawyer who represents injured offshore workers as a result of these types of incidents.

“BOEM is taking an important step to better preserve the ‘polluter pays’ principle of the Oil Pollution Act and further promote safe and environmentally responsible operations,” said Walter Cruickshank, the organization’s acting director, in a statement. “This is needed to keep pace with inflation, which has increased 78 percent (since 1990).”

Strangely, the Oil Pollution Act’s liability limit is supposed to be readjusted every three years to keep pace with the inflation rate, but this has not been done since it was signed into law in 1990 with two exceptions, an increase in 2006 that only applies to tankers carrying crude oil and one earlier this year that relates to spills coming from onshore setups.

Fortunately, BP waved this cap as it related to the company’s role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The organization may end up responsible for tens of billions of dollars in payments to affected residents, cleanup work, fines and legal settlements with Jones Act attorneys and their clients. However, companies responsible for these types of spills in the future may not wave this cap, which is why many are seeking to raise the limit to a significantly higher figure than $134 million.

Repeated efforts had been made to increase the cap in the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon incident, but politicians could not agree on exactly where to place the limit, and no change was made. Many felt that the cap should be removed entirely while others believed that doing so would result in companies with fewer resources no longer being able to compete in the industry.

However, politicians were able to pass legislation in a much timelier manner following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 as the Oil Pollution Act became law a year later.

That piece of legislation’s limit on how much money these companies are responsible for only applies to economic damage claims from affected organizations and every oil rig accident attorney who represents them. There is no limit to how much is spent cleaning up the spill. Also, the liability limit is removed entirely if the spill was the result of willful misconduct, gross negligence or a similar reason.

One senator, Ed Markey, is going to continue to work on what he hopes will be the next step.

“The Obama administration has now done what it can under the law to raise the liability for oil spills, and it is up to Congress to take the next step to hold oil companies fully accountable when they spill oil,” Markey said in a statement. “We learned from the BP disaster that the fines and liabilities oil companies face for safety and spill violations amount to slaps on the wrist when compared to the damage they cause and the profits these companies keep.”

In 2010, BP started providing live broadcasts of the Deepwater Horizon spill to the general public after a congressional subcommittee chaired by Markey demanded it. Live video of the spill had only been available to a select few for 23 days prior to that point.

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Environmental Groups Suing DOT Over Oil Train Regulations

black-tankerThe U.S. is experiencing a boom in oil production, but the poor condition of railroad cars used to transport crude oil to refineries has led environmental groups to sue the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) over its regulations. The tanker cars are old and weakened, resulting in ruptures and an increasing number of explosions; the worst thus far occurred in Quebec in 2013 with 47 deaths. The DOT has proposed improvements, but the oil and railroad industries are pushing back, and environmental groups want more. Meanwhile, FELA attorneys, acting under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, are working to protect railroad employees who must carry out their jobs amid dangerous conditions.

In 2008, the DOT reported transportation of 9,500 railroad carloads of crude oil throughout the U.S. By 2013, that number rose to 415,000. The oil-rich Bakken area of North Dakota is responsible for a large portion of increased domestic production, and the benefits to industries and consumers are undeniable. Yet the Transportation Department warns that Bakken oil is more combustible than other crude oil — a claim the oil industry denies — and the DOT-111 tanker cars carrying it are not design or in the best condition to do so safely.

Increasingly deadly consequences prompted two environmental groups to file a petition in July of 2014, calling for an emergency order to stop use of DOT-111 rail cars for transporting Bakken oil. The DOT did not respond, and Earth Justice filed a lawsuit in September on behalf of the Sierra Club and Forest Ethics. The DOT denied the original petition two months later.

All stakeholders agree that replacing the railroad cars is necessary, but disagreement surrounds proposed timelines; safety regulations for new tankers; which group will pay for updates; and even the speeds at which trains should travel through populated areas. The effects on industry, residents and the environment are well noted, but there is little discussion about at-risk railroad employees who transport the volatile substance. Train accident attorneys are following ongoing developments in order to best defend their clients who are injured.

One major issue is the Transportation Department’s two-year timeline to phase out the old rail cars; they may also allow six years for deployment of brand new models. Environmental groups believe that is too generous and that it will put towns and cities near railways at risk. Yet the oil industry wants at least seven and as many as 10 years for replacements, saying that anything faster could affect overall production and cost consumers billions. The American Petroleum Institute says it can only replace 6,400 rail cars each year out of 68,000 needed.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) wants more time as well but disagrees with the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, representing refineries, about various safety measures. One disagreement involves the thickness of tankers’ outer shells, and the arguments exist over a 1/16-inch difference. Meanwhile, the railroads want the oil companies to pay for the changes, and the oil companies want the railroads to pay. Either way, the costs will eventually reach consumers.

There is also disagreement about rail speeds in urban areas. Railroads voluntarily slowed to 40 mph from 50 mph near cities, but experts believe 30 mph is safer. At that speed, the AAR says that lost time and lowered capacity would cost too much, and they also fear losing business to trucking if speeds are reduced further.

The increasing number of tanker explosions put railroad employees and residents near railways at the most risk. Ongoing agency and industry disagreements delay safer conditions, and while the DOT lawsuit may help, resolution will still take time. A railroad worker injury lawyer can assist any affected employee in the mean time, and members of the public can also seek specialized legal representation.

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The Jones Act Does Not Cover Punitive Damages

secondary-shipThe Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States upheld the verdict reached by the Western District of Louisiana in the McBride v. Estis Well Service LLC case, which stated that Jones Act attorneys may not seek punitive damages in cases determined by the Jones Act. The only recovery available to a seaman is for actual financial losses incurred due to the unseaworthiness of a vessel or drilling platform.

The case was based on an accident that happened on Estis Rig 23, which was a barge containing a truck-mounted drilling rig in the Louisiana navigable waterway Bayou Sorrell. The truck fell over and killed Skye Sonnier. Crewmembers Saul Tochet, Brian Suire and Joshua Bourque were injured in the accident. Offshore injury lawyer Haleigh McBride filed a case for Sonnier’s minor child claiming the rig was not seaworthy according to maritime law and that Estis Well Service LLC was negligent under the Jones Act. The action sought compensation and punitive damages from Estis, who owned and ran the rig and employed all four crewmembers. The injured crewmembers filed similar suits against Estis. When the cases were combined, maritime lawyers representing Estis sought to have the claims dismissed because punitive damages are not available in cases based on unseaworthiness or Jones Act negligence. The motion to dismiss was granted by the District Court, which disregarded the punitive damage claims.

In the appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to determine if the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. was valid and would be a precedent for the case against Estis. The Supreme Court decided that compensation was confined to pecuniary losses under general maritime law and the Jones Act. The crewmembers’ attorney claimed that in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the Supreme Court heard a seaman’s claim for punitive fines because the employer did not keep the equipment safely maintained. The court also held that the reasoning behind the decision in Miles was legally sound, and the Townsend case was clearly different.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals also decided that the Supreme Court’s application of general maritime law and the Jones Act in particular in the Miles case were based on good law and could be applied to the wrongful death and personal injury case brought by the crewmembers of the Estis rig. It also held that pecuniary loss compensation is meant to make the plaintiff whole and that punitive damages were designed to punish the defendant for gross misconduct. The ruling meant that punitive damages do not fall under the category of financial losses and are not allowed under an unseaworthiness case based on general maritime law. Furthermore, there had been no other claims in which punitive damages were found to be pecuniary. For those reasons, punitive damages were deemed unrecoverable in the wrongful death and personal injury cases brought by the Estis crewmembers under general maritime law and the Jones Act.

Six judges dissented. Circuit judges Stewart, Dennis, Barksdale, Prado, Graves and Higginson maintained that since punitive damages were obtainable under general maritime law prior to the passing of the Jones Act and since the Jones Act does not deal with unseaworthiness and does not limit its remedies, the option to sue for punitive damages should be available until Congress passes legislation stating that punitive damages should no longer be applicable under the Jones Act.

Clearly, the Jones Act has had ramifications that were unforeseen when it was passed. Until Congress acts, however, the federal district courts will be making decisions based on the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. case.

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Fatal Offshore Explosion in the Gulf of Mexico

flag-and-gavelNo one ever wants to need an oil rig accident attorney, but when accidents and explosions impact oil rigs off our coast and workers are injured or killed, an oil rig accident lawyer is often the first person that an injured worker needs to call. Sadly, this is exactly what happened on November 20th when three workers were injured and one was killed during an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

What We Know So Far

Details are still emerging about this incident, but CBS News has reported that damage was limited and, since the rig was not in production, there has been no pollution or oil spillage noted. This fact has been confirmed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The company that owns the rig, Fieldwood Energy, released a statement that the facility was undamaged and that the isolated incident had been contained. At the time of the explosion, the workers had been cleaning a piece of equipment responsible for separating the oil from water as well as other liquids. The equipment they were cleaning is called a Heater-Treater. This is the same piece of equipment that caught fire on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana in 2011, forcing 13 rig workers to evacuate.

The worst part of this week’s explosion is knowing that it might have been prevented. Six months ago, regulators notified Fieldwood Energy that the equipment on the rig had not been maintained properly and was not in a safe condition. Whether the specific equipment noted to be unsafe was the same equipment that exploded this week is yet to be confirmed.

Just four years after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, people all over the United States are understandably concerned when they hear about any incident involving an offshore rig. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was a massive tragedy, killing 11 workers and injuring 16. The explosion also created a giant oil spill with a reported 4.9 million barrels worth of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past four years this has resulted in pollution on the beaches of Gulf States like Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Florida.

What Offshore Oil Rig Workers Need to Know

Working on an offshore oil rig is one of the most dangerous ways to earn a living. But oil rig workers have not been forsaken by legislators. They are protected under the Jones Act, federal legislation covering maritime workers who are sick or have accidents on the job. Because of this act, oil rig workers have the right to make a claim against their employer for damages after an incident such as this week’s explosion. They also have the right to a jury trial, which is a very important benefit and part of what separates the Jones act from traditional workers compensation rights.

Employers, like energy companies with offshore oil rigs, have an obligation to keep their employees safe. We have yet to discover whether neglected safety standards are to blame for this most recent explosion, but if so, the workers families deserve just compensation. All offshore oil rig workers should actively hold their employers responsible for maintaining safety standards including having working generators that can pump water and put out explosions early, keeping equipment maintained and repaired, and replacing older, worn equipment and parts. When an oil rig worker finds that their employer or management has been lax in any of these duties, they should contact one of the many Jones act attorneys who specialize in fighting for the rights of maritime workers. An offshore injury lawyer should also be consulted as soon as an event occurs, that causes injury or a fatality.

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NTSB Recommends Mandatory Sleep Disorder Screenings, Positive Train Control for U.S. Rail Industry

train-crossingAs the one-year anniversary of the Metro-North derailment in New York City approaches, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is calling for widespread sleep disorder screening for all railway engineers in the U.S. The December 1, 2013, derailment occurred near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx and has been attributed in part to driver inattention. The driver of the train has since been diagnosed with sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that can result in lapses of attention and extreme sleepiness for those suffering from the condition. If Rockefeller’s condition had been diagnosed and addressed prior to the crash, lives might have been saved. For those who lost loved ones or suffered injuries in this or other railway crashes or derailments, working with qualified FELA railroad injury accident lawyers can ensure a fair settlement for the losses sustained as a result of these accidents.

A Tragic Accident

The Metro-North derailment resulted in the deaths of four passengers and injuries to more than 60 others. The driver, William Rockefeller, failed to slow the train to the appropriate speed prior to reaching a curve approximately 100 yards from the Spuyten Duyvil station; the locomotive and all seven passenger cars derailed. Rockefeller reported feeling strangely dazed during the time in which he should have been reducing the speed of the train. During a post-accident medical examination, Rockefeller was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a condition that interferes with proper sleep and can reduce alertness among sufferers.

Testing for Sleep Disorders Must Be a Priority

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) currently recommends but does not require sleep disorder testing for engineers operating trains in the U.S. The NTSB, which does not directly regulate railroads, recommended mandatory sleep disorder testing for railroad engineers and other transportation workers more than 10 years ago. Although the FRA is currently working on updated guidelines for the railroad industry, the agency has not yet made a final decision regarding the enforcement of sleep disorder testing for engineers in the rail industry.

Positive Train Control

The NTSB’s final report on the Metro-North derailment also indicated that positive train control could have lessened the severity of the accident even given Rockefeller’s medical condition. Positive train control systems can automatically reduce speed when required and can identify potential collisions with other trains and take steps to avoid them. These systems could potentially save lives and prevent injuries; however, cost considerations and the failure of federal oversight agencies to mandate their use has hindered efforts to implement positive train control throughout the rail industry.

Endemic Failure to Protect Safety

The Metro-North derailment is far from an isolated incident. A number of railway accidents in recent years have resulted in loss of life, damage to property and serious questions regarding the industry’s commitment to worker, passenger and public safety. Oil tank trains have received significant scrutiny of late thanks to a number of high-profile accidents, including the Lac-Mégantic derailment that claimed the lives of at least 42 people and caused an explosion and firestorm that wiped out the downtown area of this small Canadian city. The failure of railroad companies to implement safety measures could result in even greater loss of life and damage to property in the future.

Train accident attorneys specialize in helping victims of railroad accidents to hold these companies accountable for their actions and failures to act on behalf of passenger and worker safety. By consulting with a railroad worker injury lawyer, families who have lost loved ones and those who have been injured through the negligence of railroad administrators or employees can often achieve a fair settlement for their losses or injuries. This can help to put added pressure on top management of railroad companies to implement the safety measures and employee screenings recommended by NTSB to help prevent accidents like the Metro-North derailment in the future.

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