Even as Florida brought home several top-10 finishes in this year's
annual contest for the nation's best beaches, the tsunami of lawsuits triggered
by BP's beach-trashing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico three years ago continued
to gain strength.
The British company's drilling accident sloshed the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida with crude oil for weeks and stained some of Florida's premier, income-generating beaches, causing visitors to flee and tourism revenues to plunge temporarily.
With hundreds of lawsuits potentially worth billions of dollars already grinding their way through federal court in New Orleans, a bunch more were filed late last month by businesses and governments determined to get their claims in before a three-year statute of limitations passed.
Many lawyers think the filing period expired on April 20, three years to the day after the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon was rocked by explosions and a fire that killed 11 workers and led to the behemoth's sinking two days later. More than 200 million gallons of crude gushed from the rig's damaged well over the following three months, making the disaster the nation's biggest offshore spill.
Other lawyers contend that the window for suing BP doesn't close until July 15, which would be three years to the day after the company's uncontrolled gusher was finally plugged.
Many of the most-obvious victims of the spill, such as commercial fishermen and private-charter operators, hotels and restaurants, and other businesses in coastal communities where oil washed ashore, successfully collected compensation from BP through a claims process set up by the company.
But many of those less-directly affected by the oil spill waited to file court claims that now add up to billions of dollars.
Among them is the owner of K&C Oyster Bar in Lake County, who in a lawsuit filed in late April blames the spill for forcing the restaurant to close. The business suffered a "drop in sales and costumers" because both seafood and tourists were in short supply in Florida following the spill, the suit alleges.
Among the last-minute litigants: Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who sued BP and its contractors for $5.4 billion to recover revenues the state says it lost because of the spill.
Also filing suit: the school board of Volusia County, which is nearly 350 miles from the closest Florida beach marred by tar balls -- and 450 miles from where BP's well disaster occurred off the coast of Louisiana.
A Volusia school representative said the case is being handled by a Morgan & Morgan lawyer in South Florida at no charge -- unless the school board receives a payment from BP. The lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.
Brian Barr, a Pensacola lawyer active in lawsuits filed against BP, said Florida school systems -- whether in coastal or interior counties -- experienced similar losses in revenue because of the spill.
"The primary source is property taxes. So to the extent there was decline in property values related to the spill for that period, that is going to show up as a direct impact to school board revenues," Barr said. "They also get percentages of sales taxes statewide. For the 2010 time period, when there was a reduced number of tourists coming into Florida to buy services and products, that had a direct impact."
The Panhandle counties, in particular, rely on a summer season based on tourists drawn to beaches that are considered some of the best in the nation. This year's top 10 list by "Dr. Beach" (also known as Professor Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University) includes St. George Island State Park, part of the Florida Panhandle.
A BP spokesman declined to say how many lawsuits have been filed against the company, nor would he comment on plantiffs' accusations about BP's role in the spill.
Many of the suits are based on the same template of accusations that fill dozens of pages and reinforce the contention that BP should pay the maximum possible amount in damages.
"Defendant BP has an especially sordid history of cutting corners on safety to reduce operating costs," alleges the Volusia County School Board lawsuit, which also blames the oil company's rig contractors. "In fact, Defendants have a history of foolhardy, irresponsible behavior across their operations on land and at sea -- a record littered with accidents, spills, regulatory violations, fines and lawsuits."
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