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Special Report: BP Oil Spill A Gusher For Lawyers

Publication Date: 
June 28, 2010
Jonathan Stempel

Professor Jeffrey Fisher is quoted on liability and the field of potential claimants in the BP Gulf Coast oil spill. Jonathan Stempel of Reuters filed this special report:

From a legal perspective, BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout and the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez are in many respects night and day.

"The Gulf is seen to be a systemic breakdown," said Zygmunt Plater, a professor at Boston College Law School and former chairman of the Alaska Oil Spill Commission's legal task force after the Valdez disaster. "It's not just one guy who had some drinks."

That was a reference to Joseph Hazelwood, the Valdez captain who admitted to drinking vodka before the spill. He was convicted of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service.


Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford Law School professor who represented fishermen and other Valdez spill victims before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Exxon case, said BP may try to limit the field of potential claimants.

"When you have a calamity like this that has so many secondary and tertiary effects, which seep into the economy and the well-being of local communities, the question is going to be where courts draw the line," he said.

"BP can argue it is only liable for hard economic losses, such as wages," Fisher went on. "That will be a huge battleground. For example, someone told me that beach communities are losing out on huge amounts of tourism revenue. Is BP on the hook for any of that? We don't know."


"The lesson of both of these things, not so much from a legal level, is that we're not able to respond to massive oil spills," Stanford Law's Fisher said. "The only solution is prevention. It's not response, and it's not legal action."