Leahy, Schumer, Whitehouse Press For Accountability From Oil, Drilling Companies

Senators Joined On Capitol Hill By Families Of Victims Of Gulf Oil Rig Explosion

WASHINGTON – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on Thursday joined with the families of many victims of the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico to press for accountability from the oil and drilling companies responsible for the tragedy in the Gulf.

Leahy, Schumer and Whitehouse held a press conference on Capitol Hill with the widows of the 11 men killed on the oil rig.  The families met earlier today with President Obama.  The families are urging action on bills introduced by Leahy, Schumer and Whitehouse to ensure that the oil and drilling companies responsible for the tragic explosion on April 20, and the continuing environmental disaster in the Gulf, are held fully accountable. 

“I particularly want to ensure that these families receive justice,” said Leahy.  “I want to ensure that we do not reduce the measure of accountability for corporations engaging in risky behavior to a mere cost of doing business.  Maritime laws enacted to compensate survivors must be fair.  The Death on the High Seas Act is the exclusive remedy for the families of those killed in international waters.  But the law does not recognize all that is lost with the death of a loved one, such as loss of consortium, care, or companionship.  The Survivors Equality Act will make sure that all of these families are treated fairly, including those who have already filed claims.”   

“Unfortunately this awful tragedy has been compounded by the fact that our laws do not allow for the victims’ families to be properly treated and given the restitution they deserve,” Schumer said. “The company that owned the rig is trying to limit its liability for damages to just under $27 million by citing an 1851 law that was never meant to apply to a case like this. This is unacceptable. The bottom line is, this company is partially responsible for this devastating disaster and it’s time for them to be accountable.”

“I believe that Congress must do whatever it can to prevent another family from having to hear that their loved one has perished on an oil rig,” said Whitehouse.  “Unfortunately many of our current laws - whether by statute or court decision - cap the liability of big oil corporations, both for worker injuries and deaths, and for harms to the environment. Rather than making responsible parties pay for harm done, they foist this burden onto the families of the lost and onto the American taxpayers. As a result, corporations lack proper market incentives to act responsibly. That must not continue. Congress must act.”

On Tuesday, June 9, Leahy introduced the Survivors Equality Act (SEA) 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 the exclusive federal remedy 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.  The Survivors Equality Act will close this loophole.  Leahy has also introduced the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act to hold accountable oil and other companies responsible for environmental crimes, and to protect victims of environmental crime by mandating restitution for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

Today, Schumer introduced legislation to repeal the 1851 Limitation of Liability Act to ensure that all parties responsible for the disaster in the Gulf are held fully liable to the extent of their determined negligence. The bill will prevent Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, from limiting its liability to a mere fraction of the costs and damages it is responsible for as a result of the Gulf oil spill.  The legislation is known as the RESTORE Act, Remuneration for Ecological and Societal Tolls Occasioned by Reckless Errors Act.

On May 11, Whitehouse introduced the Big Oil Polluter Pays Act to overturn the 2008 Supreme Court decision in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, which slashed Exxon Mobil Corporation’s punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.  In that case the Supreme Court held that unless Congress acted legislatively, punitive damages under maritime law were required to be limited to the amount of compensatory damages assessed in the case.  The legislation would allow judges and juries to assess punitive damages based on all facts in a case, without regard to the amount of other damages owed.  Whitehouse also introduced the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments Act to raise the civil and criminal penalties associated with violating provisions of OCSLA.

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