February 24, 2014
It would be perfectly proper for BP, the giant British oil company, to feel a sense of corporate remorse.
After all, the firm was responsible for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and well blowout that took 11 lives and created "immense environmental damage" in and around the gulf. (Those words were uttered by a Department of Justice official just over a year ago, when BP pleaded guilty to a dozen felony charges and agreed to pay $4 billion in penalties and fines.)
"Buyer's remorse," however? That's a different story.
But it's what BP is displaying these days toward a class-action settlement it reached in 2012, covering individuals and businesses that claimed economic losses from the oil spill — hotels and restaurants, seafood businesses, property owners and many others. The settlement aimed to streamline the claims process, so these victims wouldn't each have to bring their cases before a judge and jury. The company "wanted to do the right thing," it says.
But in recent months BP has mounted a frontal assault on the settlement. The firm has placed full page ads in major newspapers, ridiculing supposedly fraudulent claims blithely paid by the settlement administrator, Louisiana lawyer Patrick Juneau — including $8 million to "celebrity chef" Emeril Lagasse.
Last week BP turned up the heat by sponsoring the daily Playbook web page and email blast aimed at Washington opinion makers, among many other people, by the Politico news website. Each day's Playbook message from BP pinpoints a different, ostensibly absurd case with the tag line, "Would you pay these claims?" Sample: a $173,000 award to an "adult escort service." (What, an escort service can't be harmed by a fall-off in tourism?)
But that's just the PR side of things. The company also has mounted an intensive legal attack on Juneau in federal court in Louisiana. It has obtained a restraining order preventing further payments for the moment and is seeking a permanent injunction so that the policies governing the settlement awards can be recrafted.