06.08.10

Leahy Introduces Survivors Equality Act To Allow Families Of Oil Rig Victims To Seek Justice In Court

WASHINGTON – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Tuesday introduced legislation to permit families of victims killed on the high seas to seek non-economic damages in the wake of tragedies like that of the explosion on British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Death on the High Seas Act is one of few exclusive federal remedies for families of those killed in international waters, yet the law does not permit families to recover for losses such as the loss of care or companionship.  However, families of wrongful death victims who are killed at a job site on land are able to recover such damages.  The legislation, named the Survivors Equality Act, will eliminate this disparity.  The bill is cosponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).

“Where Federal law provides an exclusive remedy to those who lose their lives in international waters, it should not be unfair.  In the law, as in society, great value is placed on the bonds that hold together families,” said Leahy.  “Today, the Death on the High Seas Act fails to recognize universally what it means to a child who will no longer have the guidance of a loving father or a spouse who will no longer have the care and comfort of a devoted wife or husband.  The Survivors Equality Act will ensure that everyone is treated equally under the Death on the High Seas Act.”

Congress has amended the Death on the High Seas Act previously to allow families of victims of airline crashes over international waters to recover non-economic damages.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, held a hearing Tuesday morning examining concerns related to the April 20 explosion on the British Petroleum oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and the unfolding environmental and economic disaster.  A primary focus of the hearing was the question of liability caps for corporations responsible for the cleanup of such disasters.  The panel heard testimony about liability for the loss of life on the oil rig.  The Leahy legislation to modernize the Death on the High Seas Act will ensure that the survivors of those who were killed, and future victims, will be treated fairly. 

The hearing also focused on the Big Oil Polluter Pays Act, introduced in May by Judiciary Committee member Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Leahy, and Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), which would allow judges and juries to assess punitive damages based on all the facts in a case, regardless of the amount of other damages owed.  The Big Oil Polluter Pays Act would overturn the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Exxon v. Baker, in which a 5-4 opinion by the Court reduced the amount of punitive damages a jury awarded to victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill by $2 billion. 

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A PDF of the legislation is available online.

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On The Introduction Of The Survivors Equality Act
June 8, 2010

Today I introduce the Survivors Equality Act to ensure that everyone is treated equally under the Death on the High Seas Act.  I thank Senator Whitehouse for joining me in this important effort to provide justice for victims.  Earlier today, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to examine liability issues related to the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  The testimony received at this hearing made it clear that several of our laws need updating.

As a result of the BP oil spill, countless Americans in the Gulf Region have been devastated.  Waters, fisheries, wetlands, and coastlines, and the wildlife that enriches those environments, have been injured profoundly.  Their livelihoods and way of life will take years of hard work to reclaim. 

Among the victims of the explosion that led to the oil spill are 11 men who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.  Their families, including more than a dozen children, have experienced a terrible loss.  As Congress responds to the needs of the Gulf Region, these men and the families who lost them must have justice.  The legislation I introduce today is a step toward that goal. 

The Death on the High Seas Act is one of few Federal remedies for the survivors of those who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon.  The families of these men cannot seek justice under the laws of their states. 

In 2000, in response to a tragic airline crash, Congress amended the Death on the High Seas Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary losses for the surviving family members of air crash victims.  While this was the right thing to do, it did not go far enough.  Though well-intentioned, this amendment resulted in an inequity based solely on the manner in which a victim was killed.  Congress made some strides in modernizing this law then.  Now it must finish the job. 

Current law provides greater protection to a person killed in an aircraft disaster over international waters than it does for a person killed in a boat or other ocean vessel such as an oil drilling rig.  Under the Act today, the surviving family members of a person wrongfully killed in international waters in a boat or other ocean vessel may only recover pecuniary damages.  This means they can only seek the lost income of their loved one, and what that person provided to the family in monetary terms. 

Not only is this law internally inconsistent, it is out of the legal mainstream.  Families who lose a loved one in a workplace accident on land are eligible for more compensation. For example, the families of the 15 employees who were killed in a 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion had a full range of legal remedies simply because the facility was on dry land.  It is unfair that the men on the Deepwater Horizon are afforded less protection because that facility was at sea.  Their jobs were no less dangerous, and their losses no less tragic. 

In the Judiciary Committee this morning, Senators heard testimony from Christopher Jones.  Mr. Jones’ brother, Gordon Jones, was among the 11 men who perished on the Deepwater Horizon rig.  He died while working to support his young family.  Yet simply because of where he was working, his family has less protection under the law than the survivors of a person who loses their life in an aircraft.  This is nonsensical and wrong.       

Where Federal law provides an exclusive remedy to those who lose their lives in international waters, it should not be unfair.  In the law, as in society, great value is placed on the bonds that hold together families.  The destruction of those bonds through the misconduct of another is a loss that is recognized by the law.  Today, the Death on the High Seas Act fails to recognize universally what it means to a child who will no longer have the guidance of a loving father or a spouse who will no longer have the care and comfort of a devoted wife or husband.  It is time for Congress to finish the work that was started a decade ago and make this law fair for all to whom it applies.    

As Congress moves forward to address the terrible tragedy that has occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, I urge all Senators to join me in support of this legislation to help the families of the 11 hardworking Americans who were killed during the explosion.     

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