NEW ORLEANS-- A major piece of litigation is emerging from the Gulf oil spill, as the U.S. Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against BP and eight other defendants on Wednesday. The government is hoping to potentially recover billions of dollars for the environmental and economic damages suffered during the spill.
In filing its lawsuit, the government alleges BP and the defendants failed to take necessary precautions surrounding the safety of the troubled Macondo Well.
"It set off a chain reaction of devastating consequences for the people, for the environment and for the economy of the Gulf coast, a region still struggling to recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The government plans to use two laws to try and prove their case: the Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act.
"This about getting a fair deal for the region that suffered enormous consequences from this disaster," said EPA Administrator and New Orleans native Lisa Jackson.
Under the Oil Pollution Act, there is a cap of $75 million in damages. In the past, BP said it would waive that cap. So far, the Justice Department has not made a decision on how much in damages they plan to pursue. Under the Clean Water Act, though, the government could potentially recover $1,100 for each barrel of oil spilled. If the government is able to prove additional facts in the case, that amount could skyrocket to $4,300 per barrel.
"If we prove certain facts-- gross negligence, willful misconduct-- we can get greater penalties under Clean Water Act," said Ignacia Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
The government becomes the latest entity to file a lawsuit against BP and assorted defendants. There are hundreds such suits from across the Gulf region, centralized in the federal Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans. The government now becomes a part of that Multi-District Litigation.
"We think that really promotes the best interests of justice, it promotes judicial efficiency," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Civil Division.
"Having the government as part of that litigation will make unwieldy litigation, slightly less so," said legal analyst and Loyola University Law professor Dane Ciolino.
Ciolino said the government's filing to meet a Dec. 15 deadline was anticipated. He also said it remains to be seen what will happen in a ongoing criminal investigation into the spill.
"It will be most interesting to see whether or not the government decides to bring criminal charges and if so, whether those charges will relate just to the environmental crimes, or perhaps to even the deaths that occurred on the actions of the well," Ciolino said.
For now, the criminal investigation remains entirely separate from the government's lawsuit. As for the suit, any money obtained would go to an oil spill fund, which President Obama has said should be used for the restoration of the Gulf coast.