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When the Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 men at sea last April and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the tragedy exposed a number of weaknesses—not least of which were decades-old laws that limited the liability of major players.

The Oil Pollution Act capped the amount BP owed in damages for the spill at $75 million—a legal limit that, under public pressure, BP ultimately volunteered not to invoke.

BP and its contractors also were shielded by maritime laws that limited how much victims’ families could win by filing lawsuits. Because the deaths took place offshore, the companies could only be sued for future wages, minus taxes and expected living costs, and not for pain and suffering or other punitive damages commonly recoverable in fatal onshore accidents.

Transocean, the owner of the sunken rig, also has invoked a 160-year-old maritime law to limit its liability to about $27 million—the value of the rig—in personal injury and wrongful death cases. Whether that holds up in court remains to be seen.

A Year After Gulf Tragedy, Offshore Oil Companies Still Shielded by Liability Limits - ProPublica
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