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The SPILL Act- Compensating Oil Rig Workers’ Families


Amidst concerns that the families of those killed in the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion would not be able to recover financially for their losses, Rep. John Conyers (MI) and Rep. Charlie Melancon (LA) have introduced HR 5503, the Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act, or SPILL Act.The bill is not only geared at helping the families of those killed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it also focuses on amending two laws that date back to the 1920s and repealing an outmoded law from the mid-19th century.

The antiquated Limitation of Liability Act (LOLA) was passed in 1851 in an effort to make U.S. ship owners competitive with their European counterparts, whose liability was limited under European admiralty codes. LOLA limited a ship owner’s liability to the post-incident value of the vessel and its salvageable goods, thus insulating owners from unlimited liability. The act was intended to protect against the loss of cargo, at a time when a ship was much more likely to sink or be substantially damaged at sea. Transocean, owner of the semisubmersible Deepwater Horizon, is currently attempting to use LOLA to limit its liability in the explosion to the current value of the rig as it sits at the bottom of the ocean, $27 million. Sen. Charles Schumer (NY) has also introduced a bill, the “Remuneration for Ecological and Societal Tolls Occasioned by Reckless Errors Act,” that would repeal LOLA.

The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) was enacted by Congress in 1920 and governs the recovery of damages against a shipowner in wrongful death cases caused by negligence or an unseaworthy vessel. DOHSA is the law that will currently govern the cases brought by family members of the deceased oil rig workers. The law limits liability to economic damages only, which would include only burial costs and loss of support. Under DOHSA, family members may not recover for the care, comfort, and companionship of their lost loved one and punitive damages are not available. Not only is the law, like LOLA, anachronistic, but it also is inconsistent. Subsequent to an April 2000 amendment, family members of individuals killed in airplane crashes at sea are able to recover for the lost care, comfort, and companionship, and state law remedies for pain and suffering and punitive damages are not precluded. There is no reason why DOHSA should apply differently to those who are killed on rigs, ships, or other seafaring vessels. Further, the proposed SPILL Act would allow surviving family members to bring suit directly, without having to name a personal representative.

Among other things, the Jones Act, also passed in 1920, allows injured sailors to obtain damages for the negligence of the vessel owner, captain, or fellow crew. A subsequent Supreme Court decision, Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis (1995), determined that to qualify as a seaman the individual must spend at least 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel on navigable waters. The SPILL Act would amend the Jones Act, so that the families of killed seaman would be able to recover non-pecuniary damages.

The overall effect of the proposed SPILL Act would be to amend DOHSA and the Jones Act and repeal LOLA, so that families of those who have died can receive some compensation for the care, comfort, and companionship that they have lost and so Transocean may not successfully dodge responsibility. In addition, the SPILL Act would refine class action rules to improve the ability of states to seek redress, strengthen bankruptcy laws so guilty corporations cannot avoid paying for their actions, and apply these changes to pending actions, including those resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It seems that many in Congress realize the importance of the SPILL Act, and the House Judiciary Committee has already voted it out of committee with the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hopefully to follow. If the SPILL Act passes it will go a long way to ensuring that those who have suffered loss may be compensated and those who have caused the harm will be forced to pay for their actions.

Please show your support for the SPILL Act.

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