Barbier dismisses 66 oil spill suits; Plaintiffs claimed water used to extinguish rig caused it to sink

Steve Korris Oct. 18, 2011, 1:52am


NEW ORLEANS – Owners of vessels that fought the fire from the Deepwater Horizon explosion owe nothing to those who suffered damage from the oil spill that followed, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier decided on Oct. 12.

He dismissed suits from 66 individuals claiming that cannons on the vessels poured so much water on the rig that they caused it to sink and lose it its cap.

Some of the suits proposed class actions on behalf of fishermen, shrimpers, land owners, and workers in the oil and gas industry.

Barbier wrote that reasonable defendants wouldn't have foreseen that spraying water on a vessel would cause oil to discharge continuously from its drill pipe.

He wrote that they would have had to anticipate that spraying water "would probably cause the vessel to capsize, and would probably cause the connecting pipe to collapse, and the blowout preventer would probably not control the flow of hydrocarbons, and the discharge would probably flow unabated for three months, and that oil would probably flow 50 miles inland."

He wrote that physical damage to the rig or to other persons and property in the vicinity was foreseeable.

"Here, however, the harm results from pollution damage, which is conceptually distinct and geographically removed from the physical damage one would expect from the negligent use of a fire monitor," he wrote.

Barbier presides over Deepwater Horizon suits from federal courts around the nation by appointment of the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi District Litigation.

In the first suit against firefighters, Lloyd Frischhertz and Gerald Maples of New Orleans sought class relief on behalf of 13 plaintiffs.

"It was the flooding of the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting sinking of the rig that directly caused the piping to break and begin spewing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean," they wrote.

They wrote that vessels blasted the rig with up to 6,000 tons of water per hour.

"As the defendants' fire boats continued to blast water onto the rig, its upper compartments began to fill, resulting in a shift of the center of gravity of the rig," they wrote.

"When the rig turned and began to sink, the pipe connected to the wellhead collapsed and fell to the sea floor.

"No industry procedure, no vessel procedure, and no procedure of any of the defendants provide for the use of water in responding to an oil well blowout fire or a petroleum fire under pressure."

They wrote that defendants should have used their dynamic positioning systems to stabilize the rig, keeping it connected to the well riser and the oil source.

"Any request or encouragement by United States Coast Guard, British Petroleum or Transocean to pump water and use water cannons for a period up to eight hours, based on the knowledge and expertise of the defendants, should have been met with protest and refusal," they wrote.

They sought damages under maritime negligence law, Louisiana negligence law, and the national Oil Pollution Act.

Their complaint served as a model for dozens that followed, and Barbier packed them all together in a pleading bundle.

Seacor Marine, of Morgan City, moved to dismiss the bundle, along with Siemens Financial, Island Ventures, Nautical Solutions, Monica Ann LLC, JNB Operating, and Gulf Offshore Logistics.

Plaintiffs asked for oral argument, but Barbier made up his mind without it.

He dismissed Oil Pollution Act claims, writing that the Act provides a cause of action against a party responsible for a vessel from which oil is discharged.

He quoted from the complaint that oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon.

He dismissed claims under Louisiana law, finding maritime law preempts it.

He dismissed claims under maritime negligence law, finding plaintiffs failed to establish that defendants owed them a duty.

He quoted from a textbook on admiralty law that, "At sea the person who saves property receives a reward which is generously computed in light of the fundamental public policy at the basis of awards of salvage – the encouragement of seamen to render prompt service in future emergencies."

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