Scott and Bondi opt out of BP spill lawsuit
Published: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 6:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 6:22 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Facing a deadline today, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi on Tuesday rejected a chance to join a federal lawsuit in Louisiana, where other governments are seeking to recoup damages from the oil rig owner involved in last year's catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Scott and Bondi said not joining the lawsuit against Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP, would not preclude the state from reimbursement for damages caused by last year's ecological disaster.
The spill led to a steep decline in Florida's tourism economy, particularly in the Panhandle.
Florida officials will continue to seek reimbursement by filing a claim with BP through the federal Oil Pollution Act. Such a claim could also be made against Transocean, they said. If the claims don't satisfy the state, a lawsuit could be filed later, they said.
"It doesn't make sense for the state to join that lawsuit," Scott said. "We have a plan to make sure our state is treated fairly with regard to getting reimbursed by British Petroleum for the damages to our state."
Bondi said state officials are talking with BP representatives about a compensation figure acceptable to all parties. Right now, those talks remain productive, she said.
"It's our responsibility to get as much money for them as quickly as we can," Bondi told the News Service of Florida before a scheduled meeting of the state Cabinet in Panama City. "The Transocean deadline does not affect us, nor will it affect us if we eventually choose to enter litigation.
"Right now, we're attempting to reach a settlement," Bondi said. "What we would do if we did go to litigation, would be to go through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 before engaging in litigation."
The decision by Scott and Bondi, both Republicans, drew criticism from Democrats, who said Florida could have joined the Transocean lawsuit with little cost to the state while preserving the state's right to make a monetary claim against the company.
They noted that several other governments have joined the lawsuit, scheduled to be tried next year in federal court in New Orleans, including the state of Alabama, the city of Pensacola and the Leon County School Board.
"It boggles the mind," said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who is a lawyer. "By not filing a claim, potentially what happens, the state loses its rights to pursue a claim against Transocean."
While conceding the state could make a claim against Transocean under the OPA, Kriseman said joining the Transocean lawsuit now may have provided a quicker avenue for winning compensation for the state.
"If you're the state of Florida and you've got residents and businesses throughout the state that have sustained significant losses why wouldn't you do everything in your power to maximize the recovery?" Kriseman asked.
Carlos Muniz, an assistant attorney general in Bondi's office, said that filing a claim with BP was the "best" and "fastest" way to get compensation for the state.
He also said that Florida must file a claim with BP before it can file a lawsuit under the terms of the Oil Pollution Act.
"It's not a matter of choice, it's not a preference, it is actually a legal requirement," Muniz said.
He also said the April 20 deadline regarding a lawsuit with Transocean would not apply to that claim.
"After tomorrow passes, Florida will still have all of its rights against BP," Muniz said.
Muniz said state officials are still gathering information on the impact of the spill before making a claim, including assessing how the beach communities are doing this year.
While the state continues to pursue its recovery, individuals and private businesses continue their own process for reimbursement for lost income under the direction of the BP Gulf Coast Claims Facility, run by Federal Claims Administrator Ken Feinberg. As of Monday, the group has paid out about $3.8 billion to 176,000 claimants region-wide.Capital correspondent Gary Fineout contributed to this report and information from the News Service of Florida was used in this story