The Gulf Oil Spill and Class Action Lawsuits against BP: When to Join and When to File Privately

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by BP (British Petroleum), suffered a violent explosion and burst into flames. Eleven crewmembers died. The platform then sank and broke apart, leaving crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated rate of more than 210,000 gallons a day. Any preventable accident opens the door for lawsuits by all those affected, but a disaster of this magnitude opens the proverbial floodgates to litigation.

The types of lawsuits that have been filed (and will be filed) in the aftermath of this spill vary widely. The families of the deceased crewmembers have wrongful death claims, and those crewmembers who survived may have injury claims. The thousands of fishermen, crabbers, and oyster harvesters who rely on the health of the Gulf for their livelihoods will be suing. Environmental organizations may attempt to sue for the extensive ecological harm to the Gulf and Louisiana wetlands. In addition, property owners along the coast and even vacation renters who already paid their deposits will want reimbursement.

The sheer volume of claims against BP, the rig operator, and the companies that built the failed safeguards make this a ripe scenario for class action lawsuits. One lawyer in Louisiana is already attempting to combine over 100 different suits into one case to lighten the load on the courts, many of which have already had hearings on spill-related claims.

What is a Class Action Lawsuit, and What are Lead Plaintiffs?

Class action suits are brought by one person or a small number of people (the lead plaintiffs) on behalf of a large population that has been affected by a particular wrong. Each “class” must be certified, meaning they have to have suffered similar harms by the same defendant(s), and the evidence necessary to prove those harms must be similar.

The lead plaintiffs are the only class members integrally involved in the legal process. They have control over the legal strategy and, in the event of a settlement, are the only plaintiffs who can object to a settlement agreement. The lead plaintiffs are ideally plaintiffs with injuries and claims typical of the class, and who will work to represent the interests of the entire class.

Though lead plaintiffs have the most say in the legal process (and sometimes get a bigger chunk of the payout for their work), the role of lead plaintiff is not ideal for some people. Anyone who does not have time to be deeply involved in litigation or who is ambivalent about the outcome will not want to be lead plaintiff.

The Choice of Staying In or Opting Out of a Class Action against BP and Other Defendants

Class actions are not always appropriate for everyone who might have a claim. Many times class actions are ideal because the individual claim of each person might be very small. For example, there may be a group of a couple thousand hot dog and ice cream vendors along the coast of the Gulf who lost $1000 a piece in sales for the summer because no one is showing up to the oily beaches. Individually, it would probably be prohibitive for one of them to try to hire a lawyer who will sue for $1000. As a group, on the other hand, the payout could be over a million dollars, which makes the case much more attractive to a lawyer. In addition, it may be easier to prove harm when such a large number of people are claiming damages.

If, however, the plaintiffs were a group of property owners who had lost rental income for the summer, joining the class might not be ideal for a real estate mogul who owned fifteen houses that drew in $10,000 each a month. Unless every plaintiff (and especially the lead plaintiff) had multiple big properties like that, the mogul might get less in a class action than he would in a private action. If your interests in a particular action are so great that you want to be in control of the suit, it might be better to sue individually. In any case, talking to a class action lawyer is one of the first steps you should take.

What to Do if You’ve been Harmed by the Gulf Oil Spill

The first thing you should do is find a lawyer. A lawyer will always help you check the statute of limitations (the time period you have to file a claim) to make sure it has not expired, although in the case of the BP oil spill this will be not be necessary since the spill happened so recently and much of the harm it will cause has not even occurred yet. Most of all, talking to a lawyer will help you find out if you have a claim and where to go from there.

Remember, it may not be in your best interest to be in a class. If you have a great deal at stake and are prepared to spend the time necessary to litigate, or you have reason to believe the lead plaintiffs in your class will not represent you well, or if your situation is greatly different from the other plaintiffs in the case, you should consider filing privately. If you do not have the time or resources to file an individual suit, or if your claim is so small that it would be pointless to file alone, joining a class might be best for you. It is a safe bet, because you can sit back and wait, and even if the lead plaintiffs accept a settlement agreement that you don’t like you can opt out of it and try yourself.