On the heels of my report in The Daily Beast yesterday about BP’s meetings with the local fishermen that offered up to $5,000 with a catch—a promise not to sue—local officials stepped up warnings not to sign any waivers, and the oil giant apologized, terming the inclusion of such contracts a mistake.
The dustup surrounded what on its face was a good thing—paying boat owners to use their fallow fleet in the hopes of containing the massive Gulf spill. As oil flooded the Gulf of Mexico this weekend, BP representatives hired 700 boats in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida to deploy booms to contain the oil leaking from its Deep Horizon well.
The issue came in the fine print. The Daily Beast obtained copies of the charter agreement issued to fishermen BP was hiring.
The issue came in the fine print. The Daily Beast obtained copies of the charter agreement issued to fishermen BP was hiring. Appendix 8 of that agreement was a Voluntary Waiver and Release form that waived the boat owner’s right to sue BP and required confidentiality.
Ostensibly, the waivers only covered lawsuits involved in the use of the boats in the cleanup, rather than any claims surrounding the loss of livelihood that threatens to cripple Gulf communities. But local attorneys—and some elected officials—cautioned that BP could then use those signatures to indemnify themselves from all claims.
• How to Help the Gulf • Gallery: 11 Animals Most Threatened by the Oil Spill “The first motion by the defendant in any litigation is to dismiss the claim, which is how BP would have used this,” says Pensacola lawyer John Asmar, who represented several local residents and business owners after Hurricanes Ivan, Dennis, and Katrina. Alabama Attorney General Troy King issued a statement Sunday that he has told BP that they should stop circulating settlement agreements among coastal Alabamians.
Asmar said BP underestimated the local residents and business owners. “This waiver might have worked in any market, except the Gulf Coast,” explains Asmar, who lives on Pensacola Beach, “but these folks have been battle-tested by three hurricanes since 2004 and have be lied to by FEMA, state officials, and their insurance carriers.
“They aren’t going to sign any damn waivers.”
Facing a groundswell, BP backed off requiring the waivers on Monday afternoon. BP’s director of civic affairs, Liz Castro, told upset Pensacola Beach residents at a town-hall meeting that the standard waiver was mistakenly included in the claims packet.
“It is my understanding that the waiver has been dropped,” Castro said at the meeting.
It’s hard to take the idea of a mistake at face value. The waiver obtained by The Daily Beast very specifically cites the Deep Horizon well, which it calls the “Mississippi Canyon 252 oil discharge incident.” The waiver even lists the date of the spill, April 20, 2010.
• 6 Ways to Help the Gulf • Mark McKinnon: What Bush Could Teach Obama “We have seen similar tactics in Texas City, Texas, and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska,” says Mike Papantonio, a Pensacola environmental lawyer who is heading, with Bobby Kennedy, Jr., a legal team that is filing multiple class-action lawsuits on behalf of shrimpers, oystermen, and fisheries across the Gulf of Mexico. “They parachuted these silk-stocking lawyers into the area, offer quick settlements and get the victims to sign these waivers.”
Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.