Tampa, Hillsborough County preparing to sue BP over oil-spill claims

Published April 18, 2013

TAMPA — Days before the third anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, attorneys for Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa are moving to sue oil giant BP over tens of millions of dollars in lost tax revenues.

Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to file suit over the county's claim that it suffered nearly $43 million in losses — from hotel, gas, sales and other tax and fee receipts — as a result of the spill. Commissioners previously had voted to pursue a claim against the company for the losses. The county has entered the claims process, but commissioners' original vote didn't explicitly authorize a lawsuit. They approved pursuing the lawsuit Wednesday without discussion.

"I still believe we have incurred damages from bed taxes and other revenues," said commissioner Kevin Beckner, who first recommended the county pursue damages from BP, before the meeting. "So I think it's imperative that we make any attempt to recover any of those losses that were due to the county."

The statute of limitations for filing a claim through the courts expires Monday, officials say. The county has hired the Fowler White Boggs law firm to pursue its claim. The firm is working under a contract that would pay it 20 percent of what is recovered, plus legal expenses, if it secures any money for the county. It will not be paid otherwise.

Meanwhile, Tampa's claim for more than $50 million to cover damages to business and tourism has not been resolved, City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. said Wednesday.

Consequently, Shimberg said, the city's special counsel on the oil spill, Steven Yerrid, is finalizing a complaint against BP expected to be filed in federal court by the end of the week.

While no oil washed into Tampa Bay, the city says visitors were scared away while the well gushed uncapped for months, prompting experts to speculate about whether currents looping around the Gulf of Mexico would spread the crude.

To prepare Tampa's claim, forensic accountants found a "measurable effect" from the spill after scrutinizing more than a dozen sources of city revenue, Yerrid said when the city's claim was filed in January. Those revenues covered everything from property and sales taxes to taxes on city utilities and communication services to street car, golf course and parking revenues.

Yerrid's firm also retained an expert in tourism economics to quantify the impact on each source of revenue by modeling what revenues the city would have received if the spill had never happened versus what it actually did receive.

Because officials believe that the spill discouraged tourists who would have brought repeat business, a little more than half of the city's claim consists of damages that officials expect Tampa to sustain in the future, according to Yerrid, whose law firm stands to receive 25 percent of money recovered.

Officials in Bay County in the Florida Panhandle agreed to settle their lost-revenue claim with BP for $15.3 million, which came to $12.5 million after attorneys' fees.

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The Deepwater Horizon rig blew up 50 miles off Louisiana on April 20, 2010.

It took BP more than 85 days to cap the well on the sea floor. By that time, an estimated 172 million gallons of crude oil had gushed into the gulf.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 allows governments to be reimbursed for net lost revenue from taxes, fees or other sources that officials couldn't collect and couldn't mitigate as a direct result of a spill.

Information from the News Herald in Panama City was used in this report.