In the most recent ruling from the court involving 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, the federal district court held that Transocean as owner of the mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) was only liable for removal costs incurred by the government for discharges of oil that occurred on the surface while BP and Anadarko were jointly liable for oil that escaped from the blowout preventer (BOP) and remaining segment of the riser pipe as co-lessees.
The federal government had argued that the three defendants were jointly liable under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) for removal costs and damages resulting from the oil discharges from both the Macando well (an offshore facility under OPA) and the Deepwater Horizon, an MODU.
The court said that OPA imposes strict liability on responsible parties for removal costs and damages resulting from oil spills. The term “responsible party” includes persons who own or operate a vessel, or the lessee or permittee of an offshore facility. The court noted that an MODU could be both a vessel or an offshore facility. When an MODU is being moved from one drilling location to another, the court said the MODU would be considered a vessel for OPA liability purposes. However, when it being used to drill or explore for oil) it is considered to be an offshore facility. When an oil discharge occurs beneath the surface while the MODU is being used as an offshore facility, the court said the responsible party is the lessee. However, when the MODU is being used as an offshore facility and the oil discharge occurs on the water surface, the responsible party is the owner or operator of the MODU up to the limitation of liability for vessels (based on gross tonnage). Any liability above that limit would be borne by the lessee.
Accordingly, because the Deepwater Horizon was being used as an offshore facility at the time of the oil spill, the court held that Transocean as owner/operator of the MODU was not a responsible party under OPA for oil discharges that occurred beneath the surface of the water from the BOPor riser.
Under OPA, the liability limitations do not apply if the oil discharge is proximately caused by gross negligence, wilful misconduct or violation of federal safety, construction and operating rules. The court also ruled that the government was not entitled to summary judgment on the issue of unlimited liability.
In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, 2012 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 21795(E.D.La. 2/22/12)