Causation and Tarballs: Two Things That Just Won't Go Away

Posted on April 10, 2014 by Steve McKinney

In the Spring of 2012, just before trial on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP and the plaintiffs reached a class action settlement.  This settlement created a business claims process that required no direct causation beyond a showing that the business was located in a certain geographic area and had experienced a certain decline in revenue during the relevant period.  The settlement included claims from throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and certain coastal counties of Florida and Texas.  In November, 2012, the district court held a fairness hearing where BP argued for approval.  In December, 2012, with the support of BP, the court certified the class and approved the settlement. 

Over time, estimates of BP’s claims exposure under the settlement agreement grew.  Frustrated by attorney advertising that getting paid by BP did not require showing that your losses were caused by the oil spill, BP returned to the district court and objected to the claims administrator’s interpretation of the settlement agreement.  BP argued for the first time that claims should be evaluated on an accrual basis accounting method rather than a cash basis.  This could have reduced BP’s exposure, but most small businesses maintain their books on a cash basis and the district court upheld the claims administrator’s interpretation.  BP appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

In the Summer of 2013, a 3-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit heard this first appeal and remanded the case for further development of the record on the parties’ intent. (link to decision)  One judge questioned sua sponte whether a causation standard that did not require proof of a connection to the oil spill undermined the parties’ legal ability to enter into a class action settlement.  The panel also instructed the district court to stay the payment of claims pending resolution of these issues.

Meanwhile, parties who had objected at the fairness hearing took a second appeal to the Fifth Circuit that challenged class certification.  BP joined in this appeal, notwithstanding having argued for certification before the district court.  BP argued that because the settlement agreement was being interpreted to pay claims that were not connected to the oil spill, the class was not properly certified.  In January, 2014, a 3-judge panel hearing the second appeal affirmed class certification based on the panel’s understanding of the injury alleged on behalf of potential class members and the panel’s view of Article III standing requirements and Rule 23 class certification requirements applicable at the settlement stage of the case. (link to decision)

Back to the first appeal. On remand, the district court ruled in December, 2013 that the revenue-based causation standard agreed to by the parties was sufficient for class certification and met the requirements of Rule 23 and other federal laws regarding class actions.  Predictably, BP asked the first Fifth Circuit panel to review this ruling.  On March 3, 2014, that first panel affirmed the district court’s ruling and ordered that the stay on payments be lifted. (link to decision)  Focusing more on the Claims Administrator’s interpretations of the Settlement Agreement, this panel determined that the agreed-upon claims process included elements sufficient to establish traceability of the claimed damage to the spill.  In a sense, the earlier panel decision reviewed the Settlement Agreement as a matter of principle and the later decision reviewed it in application.  On March 17, 2014, BP sought rehearing en banc.  As a result, the panel’s mandate will not issue and the stay will remain in place pending resolution of BP’s request for rehearing.  Is the gravity-challenged opera person warming up? 



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