Gulf oil spill: The new flood of BP lawsuits hitting Mobile’s federal court

Updated: Dec. 5, 2019 at 7:00 AM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Nearly a decade after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a new wave of lawsuits against BP is hitting the federal courts.

The new litigation is the result of a court ruling that blocks thousands of people from a medical settlement negotiated after the 2010 environmental disaster. It threatens to clog court dockets for years. It also means plaintiffs like Sherry Carney might have to wait a long time for their day in court.

“It was a fine line between life and death; I can tell you that,” Carney said, reflecting on how the oil spill changed her life.

Carney was a Dauphin Island city councilwoman at the time. She said she had planned to make her house on the island’s fragile west end her “forever home.” But she said that months of breathing in toxic fumes took a toll on her health.

In 2012, she said she spent 34 days in the hospital, part of it the intensive care unit. She said the ordeal included four different stints on a ventilator. At times, she added, she was worried she would not make it.

Even after recovering, she said deterioration of her lungs has killed her long-distance running hobby.

“My respiratory system after those four episodes of ventilation won’t ever be the same,” she said. “I was a runner. I do a lot of walking. But I can’t run anymore.”

After the oil spill, the federal courts consolidated all lawsuits under U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans. Part of that litigation involved a medical settlement for coastal residents and clean-up workers with spill-related health issues.

But under a ruling by Barbier, the fund is not available to anyone who did not have a doctor’s diagnosis by April 16, 2012 – two years after the accident. That shuts out people with cancer and other conditions to take a long time to develop. It also bars people like Carney who say they felt the effects shortly after the spill but did not get a prompt diagnosis.

Court records indicate that a doctor diagnosed Carney with chronic sinusitis and chronic bronchitis in April 2013 – a year too late.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t understand that part,” said Craig Downs, a Miami lawyer who represents some 2,000 people from Florida to Texas.

Potential to clog court dockets

Barbier has been transferring the lawsuits to the federal courts with jurisdictions over where the plaintiffs live. More than 500 suits have been filed in Mobile’s federal court since the beginning of the year. BP lawyers have asked that Carney’s case also be transferred.

Jason Ryan, a spokesman for BP America, said the company would have no comment beyond what its lawyers file in court. In those court filings, the oil giant’s attorneys have denied responsibility for the injuries that the plaintiffs have suffered.

Unless there is some sort of global settlement that resolves all of these cases, the lawsuits could hang around of years. Each case will have to be tried or settled separately.

“We have cases that are now booked all the way through 2020 and 2021,” Downs said. “I do believe that more cases will be filed. So, yes, I think it’s gonna be a difficult situation because there’s going be a lot of cases. And a lot of these courtrooms weren’t, you know, designed to handle this large a volume of cases.”

Another plaintiff, Quinn Breland, said he got sick from exposure to the chemicals used to break up the oil in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon explosion.

The spill shut down tourism and fishing during summer 2010. Breland, who lives in Theodore, said he owned a business at the time that sold equipment to boat owners. Faced with economic disaster, he said, he joined the clean-up efforts as part of the “Vessels of Opportunity” program.

“We were not aware of bad things that would happen to you years later,” he told FOX10 News.

Breland said his lungs were operating at only 58 percent capacity as a result of the clean-up work. A few weeks ago, he said, they had recovered only to 78 percent.

“It took that long to get a little bit of my breath back,” he said.

Breland said he did not notice any reaction to the chemicals at the time. It was more than a year later before he felt the effects, he said.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said.

‘I could breathe before the oil spill’

Breland said he suffered from a low-grade fever and mycoplasma pneumoniae.

He added that he began going through big packets of Tums and eventually took antibiotics. He said there is no doubt about the source of his health problems.

“I didn’t have heartburn before this oil spill,” he said. “No. 2, I could breathe before the oil spill.”

To win in court, the plaintiffs will have to show not just that they’re battling chronic illnesses – but that the oil spill is the cause.

Downs expressed confidence.

“If we can show that our clients were exposed to a certain amount of certain types of chemicals for a sustained period of time, then it’s gonna be very helpful in proving that their disease processes were caused by the oil spill,” he said.

Scientific studies conducted over the past decade may bolster the plaintiffs’ case. One of the largest, sponsored by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, has tracked 22,000 people.

Dale Sandler, chief of the agency’s epidemiology branch, told FOX10 News that researchers found an increased risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease that potentially could be associated with the spill. She also said that the greater people’s exposure to burning oil, the more it has affected their lung function.

“What we have shown is that some specific jobs associated with oil spill cleanup were related to decreased pulmonary function, lung function when we did these tests of how well people could breathe in or breathe out and how forcefully,” she said.

As for Carney, the former city councilwoman, she said she sold the home she loved and moved to Mobile. She said it was a psychological and emotional challenge adjusting to the limitations of her lifestyle.

“You know, I would get out and walk, and I couldn’t go a block without stopping,” she said. “And that’s very frustrating when you have everything physically that you used to do. And you tried. You tried doing it, and it, you get angry and you get frustrated.”