A Times Editorial

Going it alone on oil damages

Nesting terns and pelicans are shown last May at Cat Island, La., as oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill began to affect the shore. At right, a photo this month near the same location shows the lush marsh grass and mangroves mostly dead or dying.

Associated Press

Nesting terns and pelicans are shown last May at Cat Island, La., as oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill began to affect the shore. At right, a photo this month near the same location shows the lush marsh grass and mangroves mostly dead or dying.

Gov. Rick Scott has made a curious decision not to join a multistate lawsuit against Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig that exploded last year in the Gulf of Mexico. Scott has pinned Florida's compensation on the novel legal strategy that the companies behind America's worst environmental disaster can be counted on voluntarily to make things right. That ignores the spotty record these companies have in accepting responsibility, and it weakens the state's position in recovering damages.

Scott declined to join the suit against Transocean before Wednesday's deadline. Instead, he said, the state would pursue a compensation claim against BP, which leased the Transocean rig and owned drilling rights to the Macondo well. The governor said he wanted to avoid litigation; the state plans to file a claim this summer under the federal Oil Pollution Act. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said the move could result in a quicker payment for Floridians who suffered economic losses. Deputy Attorney General Carlos Muniz also said that by avoiding involvement in the Transocean case, Florida could avoid paying trial lawyers' contingency fees.

None of these explanations justify refusing to join the multistate lawsuit against Transocean. The state could have joined Alabama, Louisiana and 800 other plaintiffs in the federal suit without compromising its legal options to recover losses from BP and its business partners. While BP may have agreed to waive any protection under the existing $75 million federal cap on spill-related damages, Transocean is seeking to limit its liability. The issue for Florida is not solely BP but to what extent a half-dozen subcontractors also could be liable. Only seven of the 126 workers on the rig that day were BP employees. And as the national investigating commission on the disaster found, the blowout can be traced to "a series" of mistakes by BP, Transocean and Halliburton, which cemented the well casings.

There would have been no harm in joining a united front with other gulf states. Instead, it appears the administration is appeasing an industry eager to return to deepwater drilling and maintaining its grudge against trial lawyers, who would receive a portion of any damage award.

Now that Scott has turned to the honor system to plead with these polluters to pay, he needs to lay out his strategy: What process will the state use to determine its economic damages? What expectations does Florida have in return for refusing to join the multistate lawsuit? And who is the governor listening to since he doesn't listen to the state's former special counsel on the spill, Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid?

Scott and Bondi have concluded that Florida will be better off fending for itself against multinational companies responsible for this catastrophe. If they are wrong, the real losers will be Floridians who have suffered enough.

Going it alone on oil damages 04/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 10:51pm]

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