The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that commercial fishermen can sue a phosphate company that polluted Tampa Bay in 2004 — a decision that could widen BP's legal liability for oil that reaches state waters from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Though the ruling applies directly to fishermen, the court's broad interpretation of state law could open the door for other plaintiffs who are economically damaged by water pollution.
The ruling "will assist fishermen, property owners, everybody who makes a living related to our coastline," said Clearwater attorney Andra Dreyfus, who represents the fishermen.
As Deepwater Horizon oil fouls Florida beaches in the Panhandle and potentially elsewhere, the ruling "can only be a positive," she said.
The case stemmed from a Riverview phosphate pond that overflowed its banks when Hurricane Frances passed nearby. About 65 million gallons of acidic wastewater poured into the bay, damaging mangroves and seabeds, and killing marine life.
Blue and stone crab catches plummeted and regained their former levels only this year, said St. Petersburg fisherman Howard Curd, 63. Where once his traps teemed with hundreds of tiny stone crab juveniles nipping at the bait, "after the acid spill, there were no more stone crabs or blue crabs."
So Curd and more than 100 other fishermen sued Mosaic Fertilizer, one of the world's largest fertilizer companies.
Both circuit court and appellate courts said the fishermen had no standing to sue over water pollution. The law gives recourse only to people who suffer property damage or personal injury, the lower courts said.
The fishermen may have suffered economic damage, but they weren't physically injured. And since they didn't own the fish or crab, the lower courts said, they had not suffered property damage.
But the state Supreme Court thought differently. Common laws of negligence give commercial fishermen special standing to sue polluters for economic damages, the high court said.
When General Electric dumped 500,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the Hudson River and New York authorities banned the take of striped bass, for example, commercial fishermen successfully sued because they had suffered "a peculiar or special harm" that "went beyond the harm" done to other members of the community.
Beyond common law, the Florida Legislature has passed laws that give even broader protection to people damaged by marine and freshwater pollution, the Supreme Court ruled.
If a company pollutes, plaintiffs need not prove that their own property was damaged, nor even that the polluter was negligent, the court said.
Economic damages are sufficient grounds for a suit, the court said, and nothing "prohibits any person from bringing a cause of action."
The Mosaic case will now return to lower courts to be argued on its merits. Company attorneys could not be reached Thursday.
Clearwater attorney Wally Pope, who also represents the fishermen, said Thursday's ruling definitely will allow fishermen to sue BP over damage to marine life from oil.
Other waterfront business, like hotels, restaurants and jet ski concessionaires, also may have standing to sue, Pope said, as the courts sort through different claims by different types of plaintiffs.
"The court took a very expansive view of damages, and that's going to help everybody," Pope said. "I don't think BP is going to be happy about this ruling."