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Florida won't join oil spill suit against Transocean, instead will file claim against BP

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Florida won't join Alabama, Louisiana and more than 800 other plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against Transocean, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the gulf a year ago, the governor announced Tuesday.

Instead, the state will file a claim against BP directly, a move the Attorney General's Office says will be resolved more quickly — and inexpensively.

"It doesn't make sense for the state to join that lawsuit," Gov. Rick Scott said. "We have a plan to make sure that our state is treated fairly with regard to getting reimbursed by British Petroleum for the damages to our state."

The decision to miss today's deadline to join the suit could leave Florida unable to pursue Transocean or take part in any findings by the court, but doesn't affect its ability to go after BP for losses under the Oil Pollution Act, said Corey Maze, deputy attorney general for Alabama, which is coordinating the New Orleans litigation for the gulf states.

Critics have railed against Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi for not taking legal action against companies responsible for the disaster despite being in office four months.

Steve Yerrid, a Tampa lawyer who served as special counsel on the oil spill to Scott's predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist, said the state has a solid claim against Transocean and the governor is obligated to get all the money he can for Florida taxpayers.

"Caution and prudence are always the best guidelines, so I would have advised to preserve our claims by entering an appearance into that lawsuit," he said Tuesday. "I believe all avenues of reparation should be pursued."

Representatives of the Attorney General's Office said they plan to file an interim claim this summer under the Oil Pollution Act to obtain economic and environmental damages from BP and its partners, Transocean and Halliburton. Unless BP refuses to cooperate that could happen this summer without litigation, officials said.

"That would be utopia," Scott said after touring a shipyard in Panama City, one of many visits he paid to Panhandle businesses during a two-day tour of the region that wraps up today.

Other governments have taken a similar approach.

Bay County reached a $2.6 million settlement with BP on Tuesday for its lost tax revenues in 2010, one of the largest governmental claims for damages. Lawyers involved in those negotiations, as well as similar settlements for Walton County and Panama City Beach, said Scott's team was taking the right path in its dealings with BP.

"I just can't believe the courage that the governor and the attorney general displayed by deciding to stay out of that litigation," said Carl Nelson, a lawyer at Fowler White Boggs in Tampa. "It's important to follow this claims process."

His team of attorneys is handling claims of about 500 private entities, tourism development councils and local governments. Nelson said today's deadline for plaintiffs in the Transocean suit is a "nondeadline" for Florida, as it pertains to claims under maritime law having to do with death and injury or offshore supply vessels damaged by the explosion.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier plans to use the case, which goes to trial in February, to allocate fault among Transocean and other involved parties, but that's irrelevant because BP is the ultimate responsible party, Nelson said.

"The parties will have to contribute based on their fault to BP, but BP has got to pay us," he said.

Carlos Muñiz, deputy attorney general, told reporters in a briefing Tuesday that the federal lawsuit has nothing to do with Florida being compensated for its economic harm as a result of the disaster. The Oil Pollution Act has a three-year statute of limitations, allowing Florida to retain its legal rights against BP and Transocean, he argued.

"We will still have every legal right that's relevant to compensating the taxpayers that we have today," he said.

Muñiz said the Transocean litigation is limited but could expose the state to paying contingency fees to attorneys for little benefit.

"That is not litigation that the state controls. It is being controlled by lawyers that we did not choose and would not be uniquely responsible to Florida," he said.

By getting involved in the Transocean case, "we could possibly be exposing the state to attorneys fees that could be in the tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for no upside — no benefit for the taxpayers of Florida."

Florida has not entered negotiations with any private lawyers to pursue a suit, he said, focusing instead on procedures established through the Oil Pollution Act.

"The goal is to get the maximum recovery in the shortest possible time," Muñiz said.

Times staff writer Becky Bowers and news researchers Shirl Kennedy and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@sptimes.com.

Florida won't join oil spill suit against Transocean, instead will file claim against BP 04/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 8:05am]
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