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Senators Push to Allow Oil Rig Victims to Seek More Damages in US Court

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has introduced legislation to permit the families of victims of tragedies like the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico to seek non-economic damages. A Senate panel on Tuesday heard from one of the victim's relatives.

The Senate Judiciary Committee focused on the question of corporate liability for the loss of life or the loss of livelihoods for people affected by disasters such as the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Eleven people were killed in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP. One of victims was Gordon Jones, a husband and the father of a two-year-old child and a baby born only days after his death. Gordon's brother, Christopher Jones, called on Congress to take action to help his family. He says he took offense at comments by BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward.

"I want to take this opportunity to address the recent remarks made by Tony Hayward, CEO of BP. In particular, he publicly stated he wants his life back. Well, Mr. Hayward, I want my brother's life back. And I know the families of the other 10 men want their lives back. We will never get Gordon's life back. And his wife will live a life without a husband, and her two children a life without a father. At the top of the United States Supreme Court building is the phrase "Equal Justice Under the Law." As a United States citizen and as a lawyer, I agree with that principal. Unfortunately, it does not exist in the case of deaths occurring in federal waters," he said.

The Death on the High Seas Act does not permit families of victims to recover losses such as the loss of care and companionship associated with losing a spouse or parent. Under law, victims of maritime tragedies can only claim economic damages for the lost income their loved one would have provided.

In 2000, following an airliner crash, Congress amended the Death on the High Seas Act to permit recovery of non-economic damages by surviving family members of air crash victims. That is why Christopher Jones and several Democratic senators support legislation to provide equal protection to those killed on oil drilling rigs or on ships.

"Our laws should encourage safety and accountability. Where they do not create the right incentives, we must change them. Whether as the result of greed, incompetence or negligence, BP's conduct has devastated the lives and livelihoods of countless people and their communities and may threaten the Gulf [of Mexico] coast's very way of life. It has been said by others, that if BP can spend millions and millions of dollars running ads saying how wonderful they are and how environmentally conscious they are, they can spend a lot more money helping the families that are suffering," he said.

Several senators at the hearing also said they support the lifting of a $75 million cap on economic damages a corporation might pay under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Other senators introduced a bill last month that would raise the cap on economic damages to $10 billion.

A witness at the hearing objected to the idea of Congress passing a law that would apply retroactively to make oil companies liable for more damages. Jack Coleman is Managing Partner of the private energy consulting firm EnergyNorthAmerica. He says the United States benefits from developing oil and gas resources at home. Coleman says he hopes that Congress will not implement what he calls policies that would imperil an industry that is an enormous source of jobs and revenue.

"In my testimony, I did not come out against an increase in that for future leases. I was dealing with that from a contract law point of view and the great damage to the industry that would come about from a $10 billion cap or unlimited cap on damages," he said.

Leahy and several other Democratic senators said they support plans by the Obama administration to open a criminal investigation into the cause of the massive BP oil spill. Republican members on the panel were more reserved and did not voice support for Leahy's bill to allow the family members of victims to seek greater compensation. Congress will continue to hold hearings on the oil spill, with BP CEO Tony Hayward expected to appear at a hearing next week.