MOBILE, Ala. — A new wave of lawsuits against BP is hitting the federal courts nearly a decade after the Gulf oil spill.
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 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 told WALA-TV Channel 10 in Mobile, 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.”
One of the BP’s wells blew out off the coast of Louisiana in 2010, leading to the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Eleven rig workers were killed and millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf for 87 days.
After the oil spill, 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 cleanup 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, or two years after the accident. That shut 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.
Barbier has been transferring lawsuits to federal courts with jurisdictions over where the plaintiffs live. More than 500 suits have been filed in Mobile’s federal court this year. BP lawyers have asked that Carney’s case also be transferred.
In court filings, BP attorneys deny responsibility for the plaintiffs’ injuries. Jason Ryan, a spokesman for BP America, said the company had no other comment.
Unless there is some sort of settlement that resolves all of these cases, the lawsuits could last for years, and Downs said he expects additional lawsuits.
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 cleanup efforts as part of the Vessels of Opportunity program and got sick afterward.
“We were not aware of bad things that would happen to you years later,” said Breland, who grew so sick he expected to die and now has diminished lung capacity and digestive problems.
He said there is no doubt about the source of his health problems.
“I didn’t have heartburn before this oil spill,” Breland 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.
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, said 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.