Requirements for Claims under the Oil Pollution Act

oil-power-1182675-1-1024x768Waiting until the last minute to do almost anything is not recommended but it is especially true if you are seeking to bring a claim for damages. That is what some fishermen found out when they sought to bring claims under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) for damages that resulted from an oil spill.  The oil spill came from a barge owned by American Commercial Airlines, LLC (ACL) that had been involved in a collision on the Mississippi River in the Port of New Orleans on July 23, 2008.

On July 25, 2011, the fishermen claimants filed an action against ACL in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  The district court denied ACL’s motion for summary judgment but certified to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit two issues of law regarding the requirements for proceeding under OPA.  One issue was whether the claimants met the requirements when they did not personally sign the claim forms and did not provide specific requested items in support of their claims. The other issue was whether the claimants had to make a proper presentment at least 90 days before the three year limitation period ran out.  The first issue pertained to all claimants but the second issue involved only those claimants who first presented their claims on or after July 22, 2011, because those claimants had not waited the 90 days after first presenting their claims to file an action in order to not be barred by the three year limitation period.

Individuals and entities harmed by an oil spill may file claims for damages under OPA.  To promote settlement and avoid litigation, there are specific procedures under OPA that claimants must follow.  See  Johnson v. Colonial Pipeline Co. , 830 F. Supp. 309 (E.D. Va. 1993).  Under OPA’s presentment requirement, claimants must first present their claims to the responsible party and then wait until that party denies all liability or until 90 days from the time of presentment have passed before filing an action against that party.  See OPA, 33 U.S.C. § 2713 (2016).

Regarding the first issue, the Fifth Circuit said that there was no question that the claimants presented their claims with some supporting documents to ACL, the responsible party, and because they had done so, the claimants had properly presented their claims under OPA.  In addition, the Fifth Circuit stated that nowhere did OPA require claimants to individually sign their claim forms. The claims had been signed by their attorney who had the authority to do so.

The second issue involved only those claimants who had waited until July 22, 2011, to present their claims, almost three years after the oil spill.  These claimants had then filed their actions along with the other claimants on July 25, 2011, only three days after presenting their claims. If these claimants had waited the 90 days, they would have filed outside the three year limitation period and their actions would have been barred for that reason.  The Fifth Circuit stated that OPA clearly required that claimants comply with both the 90 day waiting period and the three year limitation period. Claimants cannot ignore the 90 days waiting period simply because the three years is about to run out. There were no extenuating circumstances that the claimants could rely on since the Coast Guard had been timely in identifying ACL as the responsible party.  And the claimants had not given any explanation that satisfied the Fifth Circuit for why they had not complied with the 90-day presentment requirement and the three year limitation period.

Procrastination is a habit that quite a few people have and the consequences for waiting until the last minute can be serious or not so serious.  Missing out on your chance in court to possibly recover damages for losses you suffered is definitely serious. Hopefully, the claimants, in this case, will not suffer any further losses from an oil spill, but if they do, they will not wait to file their claims again.  

Additional Sources:  Nguyen et al v. American Commercial Airlines, LLC

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer:  Sandra Sinclair

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on the Oil Pollution Act:  Oil Pollution Act May Provide an Extra Source of Compensation to Those Affected by Gulf Coast Oil Spill