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Federal court allows punitive damages, federal claims against BP

For anyone concerned about the environment, the BP oil spill was a disaster and the cleanup continues to remain somewhat of a nightmare. Many of the people living near the spill were rightfully concerned about how the oil would affect their livelihoods, homes and health, something any New York resident might fear if a similar environmental accident happened upstate. Luckily for the people of the Gulf, a federal court has recently ruled that two affected states can not only pursue claims under maritime law and the federal Oil Pollution Act, but they can also demand punitive damages from the oil company.

Louisiana and Alabama were two of the hardest hit states in the massive BP oil spill and this recent decision by a U.S. district judge has secured their rights to collect from the oil company to cover the damages incurred after the BP oil rig exploded in 2010. According to the judge, the states claim that they sustained physical injuries, that BP created a products liability issue and that it was negligent.

While it appears that BP and several of the other defendants argued that the claims under maritime law were pre-empted by the federal Oil Pollution Act, the judge referred to an earlier decision that allowed for both sets of claims. Despite what seems like an all-around victory for these polluted and injured states, the judge rejected Louisiana and Alabama's state law claims because the oil rig itself was not in either state.

Although this tragic accident left 11 people dead, put numerous people out of work, and left the ocean and coastlines polluted, these types of environmental disasters can happen in New York and across the country. While this ruling may not be followed everywhere, it at least gives states, local communities and individuals the hope that big companies will be held liable for the damages they cause to people and their surroundings.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, "La., Ala. can seek punitive oil spill damages," Kevin McGill, Nov. 15, 2011

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