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Judge OKs economic part of estimated $7.8B class action settlement from Gulf spill

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FILE 2010: Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard)

A federal judge has given final approval to BP's settlement with a bulk of businesses and individuals who lost money because of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP PLC has estimated it will pay $7.8 billion to resolve economic and medical claims from more than 100,000 businesses and individuals hurt by the nation's worst offshore oil spill. The settlement has no cap; the company could end up paying more or less.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who gave his preliminary approval in May, made it final in a 125-page ruling released Friday evening.

"None of the objections, whether filed on the objections docket or elsewhere, have shown the settlement to be anything other than fair, reasonable, and adequate," he wrote.

After Barbier's preliminary approval in May, thousands of people opted out of the settlement to pursue their cases individually. More than 1,700 changed their minds and asked to be added back in by a Dec. 15 deadline, Barbier said.

BP and attorneys for the plaintiffs who were part of the settlement said they were pleased.

"We believe the settlement, which avoids years of lengthy litigation, is good for the people, businesses and communities of the Gulf and is in the best interests of BP's stakeholders," company spokesman Scott Dean said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "Today's decision by the Court is another important step forward for BP in meeting its commitment to economic and environmental restoration efforts in the Gulf and in eliminating legal risk facing the company."

A statement from plaintiffs' attorneys Steve Herman and Jim Roy praised the settlement program's administrator, Pat Juneau.

"This settlement has -- and will continue to -- bring the people and businesses of the Gulf the relief they deserve," the attorneys wrote.

The April 2010 blowout of BP's Macondo well triggered an explosion that killed 11 rig workers and spewed out more than 200 million gallons of oil, closing much of the Gulf for months to commercial and recreational fishing and shrimping.

There is still a lot of litigation left, including a trial to identify the causes of BP's blowout and assign percentages of fault to the companies involved, Barbier wrote. That trial is scheduled next year.

The agreement covers people and businesses in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and some coastal counties in eastern Texas and western Florida, and in adjacent Gulf waters and bays.

"This is a positive development, but my focus remains on holding BP and the other defendants accountable for the extraordinary economic and environmental damage inflicted on Alabama," said Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange in a statement. "I look forward to going to trial in February."

Barbier said the settlement averts worries that litigation could continue for 15 to 20 years, as it did after the Exxon Valdez and Amoco Cadiz oil spills, creating a secondary disaster for those affected.

Barbier has not ruled on a medical settlement for cleanup workers and others who say exposure to oil or dispersants made them sick.

BP has already begun paying claims before the law required it, and is doing so "in an impressive fashion," Barbier wrote. He said the claims center processed 4,500 claims a week in November and has authorized nearly $1.4 billion in payments, and BP also has paid about $405 million on nearly 16,000 claims during a transitional process that ended June 4.

Barbier noted that lawyers' fees won't come out of settlements: BP has agreed to pay them separately.

BP will pay $2.3 billion to cover seafood-related claims by commercial fishing vessel owners, captains and deckhands. That fund is the settlement's only limit, Barbier wrote. He said that it is about five times the average industry gross revenue from 2007 to 2009 and, according to evidence provided, more than 19 times the revenue the industry lost in 2010.

Still unresolved are environmental damage claims brought by the federal government and Gulf Coast states against BP and its partners on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, and claims against Switzerland-based rig owner Transocean Ltd., and Houston-based cement contractor Halliburton.

BP also has paid or agreed to pay settlements of:

--a record $4.5 billion in criminal penalties, including $1.3 million in fines. U.S District Judge Sarah Vance has scheduled a Jan. 29 hearing to accept or reject that plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which also includes guilty pleas to criminal charges involving the workers' deaths and to lying about the amount of oil spilled from the blown-out well.
  --$525 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which accused it of misleading investors by lowballing the size of the spill.

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