Judge: La., Ala. Can Seek Punitive Oil Spill Damages

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier denied efforts by BP PLC and several co-defendants based on general maritime law and the federal Oil Pollution Act.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A federal judge has ruled that Alabama and Louisiana can pursue punitive damages against BP and other companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier denied efforts by BP PLC and several co-defendants to dismiss the two states' federal complaints. The judge upheld their right to pursue punitive damages and other compensation under general maritime law and the federal Oil Pollution Act.

Barbier's ruling, dated Monday, was not a total victory for Alabama and Louisiana: He dismissed some claims in the lawsuits that were based on state laws.

The judge said many issues in Monday's ruling had been dealt with in an earlier order, including a provision that said maritime law was applicable in the case and that the Oil Pollution Act did not block claims under maritime law.

He said punitive damages may be available under maritime law because "the States have alleged physical injury to proprietary interests and the other elements pertinent to negligence and products liability claims."

Barbier also said the states can continue to seek damages under the Oil Pollution Act. However, he blocked claims each state sought under various state laws.

"The court is respectful of the states' desire to exercise their police powers and punish those who pollute their waters," Barbier wrote. But he noted that the source of the oil that damaged several state coastlines was not in any of those states, and he outlined several legal reasons why claims under state laws were pre-empted by federal law.

Barbier added that federal law should be sufficient for the states to recover the costs of removing the oil, saying, "Although the court does not decide at this time issues concerning liability or the extent of liability, it certainly appears that the States are eligible to recover all of their removal costs under OPA."

In a statement, BP focused on the dismissal of state claims.

"The court dismissed all claims brought under state law by Alabama and Louisiana, including claims for state law penalties, and determined that federal law is the only law under which penalties may be awarded," the emailed statement said.

It continued, "The court's opinion makes clear, as BP has long maintained, that state law penalties are unavailable to plaintiffs who have sought them."

A spokeswoman for Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said the ruling was being reviewed. Alabama's Attorney General's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More in Energy