WASHINGTON (CN) – During an emotional Senate hearing Tuesday, the brother of a worker killed on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig said BP has not once reached out to his family in the month and a half since the April 20 explosion. “Nobody from BP has contacted anyone from our family to extend their sympathies,” said Chris Jones, a young attorney from Baton Rouge whose brother, Gordon, was killed on the rig. “The overwhelming response I have gotten from the parties responsible for Gordon’s death, besides that no one wants to take responsibility for it, is that they are immunized by the current law.”
“So you never got anything in writing or a phone call?” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked, stunned.
“No,” Jones replied.
Jones said BP officials attended a memorial event for the families of the killed rig workers, but, as soon as the event ended, they snuck out the back and were whisked away in SUVs.
“Every time I wake up and open up The Advocate, I see an ad from BP that says they are working to make things right,” Jones said. “I don’t think they are referring to our family’s claim.”
“Gordon is my only brother,” he said, tearing up as he showed a picture of an unfinished fort that Gordon was building for his two sons before he died. “Gordon planned to finish it when he returned home. He will never get the chance.”
Jones added, “Our current laws do not protect those who need it most.”
The hearing was held to examine the adequacy of current maritime laws in assessing liability in accidents such as the BP explosion and resulting oil spill.
Under current law, Gordon’s wife and two sons can only recover lost wages, less income taxes and the amount that Gordon himself would spend “and nothing more,” Jones said.
Jones said the family of another man killed on the Deepwater Horizon who had no spouse or dependents may only be able to recover funeral costs from BP. And, because the body was not recovered, Jones said, “potentially they could write a check for $1,000 and walk away.”
Jones asked Congress to amend the Death on the High Seas Act, which dates back to 1920, to allow family members of victims to recover non-pecuniary damages such as loss of companionship.
In 2000 Congress amended the Act to retroactively allow families of victims of the 1996 TWA plane crash to recover non-pecuniary damages. But the amendment was limited to commercial airline sea-crash victims and did not cover victims of cruise ship, ferry or oil rig accidents.
Additionally, victims of maritime accidents are not subject to the same protections as victims of accidents on land. For example, accidents that occur on land are not subject to the $75 million cap for economic damages under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. After a 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas killed 15 workers, the company paid out $1.6 billion to families of victims. By comparison, the compensation that families of Deepwater Horizon workers can expect to receive from BP is “certainly not that amount,” Jones said.
“If this had been an accident on land, there would be protection,” committee chair Patrick Leahy said. “The deaths are the same,” he said.
In May, lawmakers proposed a bill that would raise the cap from $75 million to $10 billion. BP reported $5.6 billion in profits in the first quarter 2010.
During the hearing, senators grilled Jack Coleman, an offshore oil and gas law expert, who said he disagreed with eliminating the liability cap or raising it to $10 billion, as it would hinder the oil industry and endanger jobs, though Coleman admitted that the $75 million economic damages liability cap “probably should be raised some.”
“Who should make up the difference?” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked angrily.
Coleman said that requiring oil companies to cover massive liability was an “unacceptable prohibitive cost on oil companies” and argued that the funds should be taken out of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. When senators pointed out that there was only $1.6 billion in the trust fund and damages were estimated at around $10 billion so far, Coleman remained adamant that the cap should not be lifted.
“Under the law, that is the end of it,” Coleman said.
“No,” Durbin argued, “it’s the taxpayers that step in.”
Durbin had a final word for oil companies: “If you cannot accept that liability, stay the hell out of the business.”
Coleman also said that eliminating the cap retroactively would amount to a breach of contract between the government and BP.
“Congress can do it, you can do it, but there will be a contractual price,” Coleman said.
He also said he disagreed with President Obama’s six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. “It is not an unreasonable risk to allow more drilling,” he said. “We have shown that this is a very safe way of producing energy.”
When Durbin asked Jones if he would have supported placing a moratorium on drilling before the accident occurred, he said, “Of course. Gordon would still be here.”