As oil from the BP spill has savaged the Gulf of Mexico, ravaging entire industries and economies and destroying countless lives, the anger and outrage of the American public has never been greater. Our Chicago personal injury attorneys share this anger and outrage, and join in the general outcry – BP and its fellows must be made to pay for these destroyed lives and livelihoods, as well as whatever cleanup can be done to salvage the greatest environmental catastrophe of our time. Could there be any counterargument?
Unfortunately, there can. What many Americans do not realize is that a little-known tort reform provision may prevent the victims of the BP disaster from ever receiving full compensation for their losses. In 1990, Congress passed the ironically-named “Oil Pollution Act.” The Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s official summary of the legislation describes it as follows:
“The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 streamlined and strengthened EPA’s ability to prevent and respond to catastrophic oil spills. A trust fund financed by a tax on oil is available to clean up spills when the responsible party is incapable or unwilling to do so . . . . The OPA also requires the development of Area Contingency Plans to prepare and plan for oil spill response on a regional scale.”
This is all well and good. A less-often-mentioned provision of the OPA, however, is the problem today. The Act also contains a $75 million cap on liability for offshore oil drillers. This unthinkable abrogation of the ordinary rules of liability was a gift to the oil industry given to sweeten the regulatory burdens and new tax burden imposed by the OPA. Our Chicago wrongful death lawyers are disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that this corporate gem was buried in an otherwise reasonable piece of legislation.
In the wake of the BP spill, Congress is working frantically to undo this travesty. There is even talk of removing the cap retroactively, so that it does not apply to the present disaster. The legality of such action is, of course, questionable. Even if such action were ultimately upheld, it is inevitable that the question of whether the cap is applicable would keep relief and recovery for the victims of the BP disaster tied up in the courts for the foreseeable future.
Our Chicago personal injury lawyers hope that the profound unfairness of the OPA damages cap will inspire the American public to think more practically about the real-world consequences of so-called “tort reform.” The aim of tort reform is, after all, like the OPA cap, to place artificial limits on the amount of liability a negligent party can face for his, her, or its own actions. What many Americans seem to forget is that this also means that victims who have suffered beyond these arbitrary caps will be unable to recover for the full amount of their injuries.
This is simply and plainly unjust. While Americans may be able to overlook the unfairness on a smaller scale – when it is a single accident victim, or a single family destroyed by an act of medical malpractice, who cannot recover all that they have lost – it will be much harder to turn a blind eye to the massive scope of the suffering caused by the BP oil spill. While we urge Congress to proceed with removing the OPA liability cap, we also urge that this be done loudly and publicly. Not only must Congress face up to the mess it has helped to make, but it is also its responsibility to educate the American public on the true consequences of “tort reform.”
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago accident lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.