Deepwater Horizon A Vessel, Admiralty and OCSLA Jurisdiction Applied, Etc.

On August 26, 2011, Judge Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana issued his Order and Reasons in response to various Motions to Dismiss filed by multiple Defendants in the Deepwater Horizon case.  Judge Barbier put the case into perspective right off the bat: “This multi-district litigation…consists of hundreds of consolidated cases, with thousands of claimants, pending before this Court.  These cases arise from the April 20, 2010 explosion, fire, and sinking of the DEEPWATER HORIZON mobile offshore drilling unit…, which resulted in the release of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was finally capped approximately three months later.  The consolidated cases include claims for the death of eleven individuals, numerous claims for personal injury, and various claims for environmental and economic damages.”

For our purposes, Judge Barbier’s pertinent rulings are as follows:

1. The DEEPWATER HORIZON was at all material times a vessel in navigation.  It was practically capable of maritime transportation.  See Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 497 (2005).  See also Herb’s Welding v. Grey, 470 U.S. 414, 417 n.2 (1985) (“Offshore oil rigs are of two general sorts: fixed and floating.  Floating structures have been treated as vessels by the lower courts.”).

2. Admiralty jurisdiction is present because the alleged tort occurred upon navigable waters of the Gulf of Mexico, disrupted maritime commerce, and the operations of the vessel bore a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.  With admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive maritime law.

3. Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”) jurisdiction is also present because the casualty occurred in the context of exploration or production of mineral on the Outer Continental Shelf.  This determination is a carry-over from a prior decision in the case.

4. The law of the adjacent state is not adopted as surrogate federal law under OCSLA.

5. State law, both statutory and common, is preempted by maritime law, notwithstanding the Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) of 1990’s savings provisions.  All state law claims are dismissed.

6. General maritime law claims that do not allege physical damage to a proprietary interests are dismissed under the Robins Dry Dock rule, unless the claim falls into the commercial fisherman exception.  OPA claims for economic loss need not allege physical damage to a proprietary interest.

7. OPA does not displace general maritime law claims against non-Responsible parties.  As to Responsible Parties, OPA does displace general maritime law claims against Responsible Parties, but only with regard to procedure.

8. Claims for punitive damages are available for general maritime law claimants against Responsible Parties and non-Responsible Parties.

9. Plaintiffs’ claims for attorneys’ fees under general maritime law are dismissed.

In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2011 WL 3805746 (E.D. La. 2011).