By SABRINA CANFIELD
NEW ORLEANS (CN) – U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled Friday that Transocean cannot sue the U.S. government for fault in the Deepwater Horizon blowout, as Uncle Sam has sovereign immunity.
During a status conference before the oral arguments, BP attorney Andrew Langan said the Department of Justice supports a continuing Gulf Coast Claims Facility and that “there are things in place to make that happen.”
BP set up the Gulf Coast Claims Facility last year under its obligation as responsible party for the April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 and dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, in the worst spill in U.S. history.
Under pressure from the Obama Administration, BP set aside $20 billion to pay claims of Gulf Coast residents.
Ideally, the GCCF would satisfy the claims of out-of-work commercial fishermen, restaurant and business owners and others hurt by the spill, so that litigation could be avoided.
But the GCCF has faced criticism from residents and lawmakers, who say it is too slow to pay claims, and sometimes assesses and pays claims unfairly.
More than 530 oil spill complaints have been filed in Federal Court, representing more than 109,000 plaintiffs.
Langan said there is a push to “enhance transparency” of the GCCF.
The U.S. Senate in October approved an independent audit of the GCCF. The audit, to be done this year, comes as several claims sites are closing for good.
Several GCCF claims sites closed on Nov. 15, or will close on Dec. 1. Of those, a handful will be open one day a week and by appointment, according to the GCCF website.
The claims center in Gulf Shores, Ala; three sites in Florida; two sites in Louisiana, and one site in Biloxi, Miss. will remain open during regular hours after Dec. 1.
During oral arguments after Friday’s status conference, Judge Barbier blocked Transocean from suing the U.S. government for fault in the blowout.
“The United States has sovereign immunity here,” Barbier said.
He went on: “There will be no alleged fault of the United States in this trial.”
If evidentiary issues come up, he said, “We’ll deal with those as they come.”
Also addressed in oral argument were terms of BP contracts with Vessels of Opportunity (VoO) participants who chartered their boats to BP to work in the cleanup.
Several thousand VoO participants have sued BP, saying BP kept them and their boats on standby, in some instances for several months, but failed to pay their wages or for the charters. Many say BP promised to decontaminate their boats after the work was done, but failed to do so.
During oral argument, Barbier asked for clarification of the contracts the VoO plaintiffs signed and what they expected from BP in return.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Clay Garside told the judge; “What we disagree with was BP’s attempt to restrict the terms of the charter hire. … We are contending that everyone that BP put on hire – BP used response terms, ‘put to hire,’ etc. – now BP is trying to restrict the pay to when the vessel was actually out on the water.”
Six test plaintiffs have been chosen for test trials that will begin in January 2012.
There are 63 working days left before the Transocean limitation trial opens, Feb. 27.
The next status conference is set for Dec. 16.