NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A BP attorney told a federal judge Thursday that thousands of lawsuits for economic damages must be dismissed because they were filed before claimants tried to settle through BP's $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility, administered by Kenneth Feinberg.
Oil spill defendants also claimed immunity from liability for the toxic dispersant Corexit, saying they simply made "decisions that should have been made by the United States government."
BP and other oil-spill defendants, including Nalco, which makes Corexit, told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier that they are immune from liability because they were simply following orders that should have been handed down by the president of the United States under the National Environmental Emergencies Contingency Plan.
"The point we are trying to make, your honor, is that the claims the plaintiffs are making - that the dispersants are too dangerous, etc. - these were decisions that should have been made by the United States government," Mary Rose Alexander, attorney for Nalco, told Judge Barbier toward the hearing's end.
BP attorney Andrew Langan said the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was set up to help claimants settle out of court. He said that one stipulation for filing an economic damages lawsuit against BP is that a claimant must have filed a claim with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) and been denied.
But now that the lawsuits have been filed, Barbier, who is presiding over the consolidated litigation, wondered how to address the issue of presentment to the GCCF.
"I could rule as a matter of law - which you have asked me to do - but I don't want to down the road have to deal with individual rulings on 100,000 claims," Barbier told Langan.
Earlier Thursday, Barbier said the number of lawsuits so far filed in the multi-district litigation "is probably something north of 120,000 - 130,000 cases."
Ninety-five thousand claimants have joined the litigation by filing short-form joinders that were created to allow plaintiffs to join the litigation without excessive paperwork.
The GCCF meanwhile has been criticized for requiring extensive documentation from claimants.
Gulf Coast lawmakers this past winter expressed frustration with the claims center, saying BP and Feinberg were intentionally stalling responses to claims to lure desperate claimants into accepting onetime quick payments, of $25,000 for businesses or $5,000 for individuals. The payments require a signed waiver stating the claimant won't litigate for more damages from BP or any of the other oil spill defendants.
"BP's position is that any people who have claims should decide this out of court," Langan said.
Langan said he knows that filing through the GCCF "is a huge inconvenience for the plaintiffs" and he understands the plaintiff steering committee wants to take the matters to court and "stick their stake in the ground," but he said OPA guidelines still apply.
The next issue addressed was whether people who have lost wages because of the federal drilling moratorium can file claims with BP.
"It is our position that 'but for causation' under OPA is not enough," Langan told the judge. Langan defined "but for causation" as that which arrives through a thought process like: "but for the oil spill I would still have a job."
"If 'but for causation' were the standard, there would be no end to OPA litigation," Langan said.