NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A federal judge blocked BP from forcing volunteers to promise not to file legal claims against the oil company as they fight to control the immense Gulf Coast oil spill. The president of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association likened BP’s request “to demanding that a person running into their own burning home sign a release limiting or giving up their claims against the arsonist who caused the fire.”
“Such an agreement cannot be abided,” George Barisich said in his request for an emergency restraining order. “At best it is an ill-conceived approach to the crisis at hand and has the unforeseen consequences of causing further — and irreparable — injury to the citizens of Louisiana. At worse, it is a dastardly effort to compromise the rights of those citizens when they are at their most vulnerable. …
“Requiring the volunteer responders, already victims of the oil spill disaster caused by BP, to potentially lose or in any way limit their claims against BP, including claims for potential injury caused by efforts to clean up the catastrophic discharge, is unconscionable.”
U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan found the agreement “unconscionable” and declared any that were signed null and void.
“BP is enjoined from seeking to enforce any such agreements already executed,” she wrote.
Louisiana is home of the largest remaining wetlands in the United States, prime breeding grounds for dozens of marine creatures. The BP oil plume already covers more than 4,000 square miles, threatening habitat for fish, oysters, crabs, shrimp, birds and other wildlife, and the wildlife itself.
Dozens of class actions have been filed against BP, Transocean, Halliburton and others involved in the disaster set off by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling vessel on April 5.
“The discharge spreading across the Louisiana coastal waters continues with every passing minute, and every helping hand is needed in the efforts to at least try to redress it,” Barisich wrote. “The agreement BP has demanded of the plaintiff — and others — stands in the way of those efforts, and there simply is no time to waste.”
In a complaint and memorandum accompanying the restraining order, Barisich said that before BP let him to assist it in protecting his own livelihood, it drafted and demanded he sign the master vessel charter agreement, the same agreement demanded to be signed by all volunteers, all of “whose livelihoods BP has put in unprecedented jeopardy.”
The fishermen providing emergency cleanup services to BP are doing so in their own boats. That makes the fishermen the “vessel owners” in BP’s charter agreement, while BP is the “charterer.”
Barisich says the vessel charter agreement states that if the “vessel owner” has a claim against the “charterer,” or is aware of any claims for which the “charterer” is or could be held accountable the “vessel owner” must provide full written notice within 30 days.
Presumably, if any complaint fails to be addressed within the 30 days required by the agreement, it will be released. Barisich says the agreement states that the “vessel owner” will not hold the charterer liable for anything that has any connection with BP’s performance, including the vessel owner’s own death.
Thus, says Barisich, the contract holds the fisherman who signs it “to the standard of oil-spill remediation experts with respect to BP, when, in fact, they are laymen – and victims – volunteering to remediate a crisis BP itself created.”
BP’s agreement also forces a fisherman who signs it to give up his speech rights, Barisich says. For instance, should a fisherman discover information regarding the oil while in the act of cleaning it up, he is not allowed to tell anyone about it, and might be precluded from sharing the information with other disaster victims, according to the complaint.
Barisich says he was forced to sign the agreement before he was permitted to help in the cleanup. He says BP presented him “with the untenable choice of either walking away from the collective efforts to protect his livelihood or limiting – and even signing away – rights to pursue even as of yet known remedies for the destruction of his livelihood.”
In short, Barisich says, BP drafted its charter agreement “to cover its own hide.”
Barisich and the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association are represented in by James Garner of New Orleans.