Friday, August 30, 2013
According to a news report, BP today asked the Fifth Circuit to reverse the district court's approval of the Gulf oil spill settlement. I have not seen the court filing, but according to this AP report as published by the NY Times, "BP is trying to persuade a federal appeals court that it should throw out a judge's approval of the company's multibillion-dollar settlement with Gulf Coast residents and businesses. Last year, BP PLC joined plaintiffs' attorneys in urging U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to give the deal his final approval. On Friday, however, the company's lawyers argued in a court filing that Barbier's more recent interpretation of settlement terms have allowed businesses to receive hundreds of millions of dollars for inflated or fictitious claims." As told in the Houston Chronicle, BP would still support the settlement if the Fifth Circuit were to decide in BP's favor on its earlier appeal challenging Judge Barbier's rulings on the generosity of payouts.
BP's decision to ask for reversal of its settlement class action (a deal that BP had negotiated and agreed to, and for which BP had previously argued in favor of judicial approval), is a fascinating turn of events in light of the history of the Gulf Oil Spill litigation and settlement. Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP established a compensation fund to pay claims. Kenneth Feinberg was named administrator of the fund, which came to be knows as the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), and the GCCF proceeded to settle thousands of claims. But BP later joined with a group of plaintiffs' lawyers to negotiate a settlement class action that would replace the GCCF as settlement mechanism. For BP, a settlement class action offered a greater prospect of finality because it could bind all class members who fail to opt out, whereas the GCCF settlement program could bind only those claimants who chose to accept their compensation offers. In other words, even though the claims systems strongly resembled each other, a key difference is that a settlement class action uses the adjudicative power of the court to bind class members, in contrast to the claims facility, which depended upon the consent of individual claimants to settle their claims.
I've argued elsewhere that settlement class actions should be impermissible because they use the power of the courts to disadvantage claimants. But the BP news drives home the point that the opposite problem can occur -- a defendant may feel disadvantaged by a settlement class action because it deprives the defendant of control over the settlement process.