Changes Possible for Oil Rig Liability Laws after Gulf Explosion

According to some maritime-law experts, it takes a tragedy to get Congress interested in the subject. A tragedy has occurred, and following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 80 oil spill-related bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate that propose changes to U.S. maritime law.

Lawmakers seeking change argue that existing maritime laws are outdated, inconsistent and unfair to injured workers and their families. Many of the laws were enacted to encourage participation in the shipping industry by protecting companies against liability back when shipping was a lifeline for the nation in its infancy. However, insurance now limits risk for companies operating offshore.

Under scrutiny are the Death on the High Seas Act, the Jones Act and the Limitation of Liability Act. These federal laws restrict monetary damages that injured seamen or the survivors of those killed at sea, including cruise-ship passengers, may collect.

Through the proposed changes, families of deceased maritime workers could recover money damages for pain and suffering before death as well as loss of care, comfort and companionship. Currently, families can only recover money for loss of income and funeral expenses.

Expanding the damages available would bring maritime law in line with land-based negligence and tort law throughout the nation. For those injured or killed on land, the victim or the family is entitled to damages for pain and suffering as well as loss of consortium. If a worker is injured or killed offshore, there is no similar remedy.

Further, existing law also limits maritime damage claims to the post-accident value of the vessel or structure. The Senate Democrats’ bill seeks to eliminate this liability cap for companies involved in an oil spill. It also would prevent parties responsible for oil spills from using bankruptcy to leave victims and their families without adequate legal recourse. However, Republicans oppose these changes, saying they would prevent small- and mid-size energy companies from operating offshore.

Many of the proposed changes to maritime law would directly benefit injured workers. If you or a loved one has been injured while working in the maritime oil industry, contact an experienced oil rig injury lawyer to keep you informed of any changes in the law and how they may affect you.