Deepwater Horizon: Contractual Indemnity for Gross Negligence or Punitive Damages?

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier recently rendered a very important ruling in the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill suit that relates to the enforceability of contractual indemnity in the context of GROSS NEGLIGENCE and/or PUNITIVE DAMAGES.

Judge Barbier addressed whether BP was contractually obligated to defend and indemnify Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon, for pollution claims asserted by third parties.  The drilling contract between BP and Transocean, in pertinent part, required BP to defend and indemnify Transocean for damages and liability from spills “without regard to negligence of any party or parties and specifically without regard for whether the pollution or contamination is caused in whole or in part by the negligence or fault of” Transocean.

BP argued to Judge Barbier that its duty to defend and indemnify did not extend to damages caused by Transocean’s gross negligence or to punitive damages that may be awarded against Transocean.  BP asserted that the words “negligence and fault” (as used in the contract) meant “ordinary fault” but not gross negligence or strict liability.  BP also contended that public policy prohibits indemnity for gross negligence and punitive damages.

In a rather detailed opinion, Judge Barbier accepted BP’s arguments relating to punitive damages but disagreed with respect to gross negligence.  Judge Barbier ruled that public policy bars indemnity for punitive damages.  However, he held that public policy does not prohibit indemnity for gross negligence.  The Court found that the foregoing indemnity wording was intended to emphasize that BP assumed the risk even if caused by Transocean’s negligent conduct but was not intended to limit such conduct to ordinary negligence.

Interestingly, Judge Barbier noted that, in some instances, gross negligence may indeed render certain contractual language unenforceable where one party agrees in advance to release the other contracting party from liability for damages suffered by the former, as a matter of public policy.  Such provisions are more rightly defined as “releases” rather than indemnity, according to the court.

Judge Barbier explained that, in general, a “release” surrenders legal rights or obligations between parties to an agreement.  In comparison, a true indemnity agreement determines which party to a contract will ultimately bear the risk of injury to a third party.  In the first instance, the injured party has no recourse.  In the latter instance, the injured party is not restrained from seeking compensation.  Thus, the court ruled that gross negligence will render release language unenforceable, but will not prohibit indemnity.

This ruling will certainly be appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon, MDL No. 2179 (E.D. La. Jan. 26, 2012).