After a BP refinery in Texas exploded in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring scores more, the oil giant paid $1.6 billion in settlements to employees and their families. But the families of the workers killed on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico probably won't receive a similar windfall. That's because the Deepwater rig is legally considered an ocean-going vessel, and was more three nautical miles offshore at the time of the accident. As a result, the families of the dead workers can only sue BP and its contractors under a 90-year-old maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), which severely limits liability. In some cases, BP could get away with shelling out sums as paltry as $1,000.
Gordon Jones, a mud engineer killed on the Deepwater rig, left behind a pregnant wife who had quit her job to stay home with their two-year-old son. But thanks to DOHSA, the most BP could owe them is the equivalent of Gordon's salary over his working life, minus what he would have paid out in taxes and personal expenses. So if Gordon made $60,000 a year for the next 30 years, BP could owe the family less than a million dollars.
The math works out even worse for workers without dependents. Jones's brother Chris testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that one of the other Deepwater workers who was killed was single and childless. That means his family would only be entitled to recover funeral expenses under DOHSA. But because his body was never recovered after the explosion, the funeral costs will be lower. BP could end up paying his family as little as $1,000 for their loss.
Chris and his father Keith have pleaded with Congress to fix the law so that any employer can be held accountable for negligence--regardless of whether an employee dies on land or at sea. Last week, Senate Judiciary chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation that would do just that.
But Leahy's bill faces an ugly political fight. And giant oil corporations--the most obvious potential opponents of such legislation--may not even have to flex their lobbying muscle. There's another powerful industry with an interest in doing BP's dirty work to preserve the status quo. That would be cruise line operators--and when it comes to Beltway battles, the cruise lobby is no Love Boat.
Just ask Son Michael Pham, the vice president of the International Cruise Victims Association. In 2005, his parents went on a Caribbean cruise and never came back. Carnival Cruise Line, one of the world's largest cruise operators, never offered any explanation for what had happened, and has refused to discuss the incident with Pham and his family since then. That was how Pham discovered the horrible divide in the way the law treats people killed through negligence at sea. "We couldn't take legal action to get justice," he says. Long before the BP explosion, his group was lobbying Congress for DOHSA to be overhauled.
DOHSA was created in 1920 to ensure that the widows and children of seamen could get a share of their husbands' or fathers' salaries if they were killed at sea. The law was rather progressive for its time: Previously, the corporations didn't have to pay the widows anything at all. But DOHSA didn't change with the times. And because it's a federal law, it trumps state tort laws that allow injured people to recover all sorts of damages in personal injury cases, including punitive damages for truly egregious corporate behavior, compensation for grief or the loss of companionship, and even the pre-death pain and suffering of the victim.