In Re: Deepwater Horizon – Jelp Barber v. BP Exploration & Production, Inc., et. al., 761 Fed. Appx. 311 (5th. Cir. 2019), unreported.
In April 2010, the Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and numerous lawsuits were brought against BP. In turn, BP set up the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (“GCCF”) to handle and pay claims to potential plaintiffs such as business owners, fishermen, land owners, and others throughout the Gulf region. To receive payments under the GCCF generally a receiving party had to execute a release agreeing that they waived all rights against BP and others.
Two plaintiffs received payments under the GCCF and executed releases in exchange for payment. But, later they both sued BP arguing that the “ward of admiralty” doctrine should apply and the releases found null and void because they signed the releases under economic duress. The “ward of admiralty” doctrine applies to seaman and places the burden on the defendant to show that the release was executed “freely, without deception or coercion, and that it was made by the seaman with full understanding of his rights.” Garrett v. Moore-McCormack, Co., 317 US 239 (1942).The Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs were not seaman and could not avail themselves to the “ward of admiralty” doctrine; that the doctrine applies to a seaman in cases with the employer or the vessel owner and not a third-party tort-feaster such as BP; and that the doctrine would not extend to purely economic losses outside of a seaman’s contract. Thus, the releases were valid and enforceable.
The case shows the importance of understanding releases and contracts as a seaman, and that not all releases dealing with individual admiralty issues will receive the “ward of admiralty” protection. If you are a vessel owner, vessel operator, or seaman with questions, please contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.