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General Maritime Law vs. Oil Pollution Act

Oil spills, whether on the scale of a few hundred gallons or on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon accident, can negatively affect the ability of thousands of people who work in the maritime industry, such as fishermen, longshoremen, shipping companies, and seafood vendors. Maritime law features two different general compensation schemes by which workers may receive compensation for oil spills. Below is a brief summary of each.

The first compensation scheme is general maritime law. Developed through decades of case law, general maritime law awards workers’ compensatory damages (monetary losses due to the oil spill) and sometimes punitive damages (extra money awarded to oil spill victims to punish whoever spilled the oil for particularly malicious behavior). General maritime law generally applies to oil spill victims who can show physical damage to their property, such as oiled boats; it is usually not enough under general maritime law to recover damages that are purely economic, such as inability to make money by taking people on boat cruises where the oil spill occurred. Some courts, however, will allow general maritime claims for commercial fishermen who cannot make money by fishing near an oil spill, even if they do not have property that was actually damaged by the oil. The advantage of bringing a claim under general maritime law is that it is relatively easy and straightforward to proceed.

The other compensation scheme is found in something called the Oil Pollution Act, also known as “OPA”. Congress passed OPA many years ago as a way to compensate victims of oil spills, particularly those whose claims would otherwise be disallowed by the general maritime law. OPA relaxes the physical damage requirement of the general maritime law by stating that the damaged property does not have to belong to the victim; damage to a natural resource (e.g., the Gulf of Mexico) may be enough for someone to assert claims under OPA. To recover under OPA, the victim must prove that they suffered by actual losses, which were caused by the incident. Many claims that would not fit under the general maritime law, such as business interruption claims (e.g., a beach restaurant that loses business because no one will eat there due to the oil spill) and demurrage (losses a shipping company must sustain when a ship is delayed and cannot discharge cargo on time due to an oil spill).

The drawback to OPA is that OPA involves a very complex statutory scheme, often with tight deadlines that can derail a case. For example, victims who are recovering through OPA must present their claims to whoever is determined to have spilled the oil, who then have 90 days to settle or deny the claim. Only after this can the victim sue the responsible party, or submit a claim with the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (an alternative to filing a lawsuit for victims to get money through OPA). Of course, tight deadlines may apply when navigating OPA.

If you are the victim of an oil spill, you may be able to recover under general maritime law or OPA. Due to the complexity of these laws, you may wish to contact an experienced oil spill attorney to review the facts of your case. Such an experienced maritime attorney may be able to guide your case to resolution and help you navigate the maze of deadlines and requirements in oil spill recovery.

If you or a loved one have been injured, Call Carabin Shaw at 800-862-1260. We Can Help.

Visits with the Attorney are by appointment only. Main office San Antonio, Texas.

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