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House OKs bill to allow Deepwater Horizon victims' families to sue

Getting the Senate to change the Death on the High Seas Act will be harder, as business lobbyists charge forth.

July 01, 2010|By Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — In the months since Gordon Jones, a 28-year-old mud engineer, died on the Deepwater Horizon, his father Keith Jones has been to Washington four times.

Sometimes he's joined by other members of the Jones family, including Gordon's wife, Michelle, who gave birth to a baby boy three weeks after her husband died.

"They know me at my hotel now," Keith Jones said. "And I'm starting to learn the plane schedule."

The Joneses and families of the other 10 workers who died when the drilling rig caught fire April 20 off Louisiana want an obscure 1920s statute, the Death on the High Seas Act, changed so they can seek larger damages for the loss of their loved ones.

Their lobbying effort on Capitol Hill — led by Jones, a Baton Rouge, La., attorney who practically closed his private practice to campaign nonstop — paid off Thursday when the House overwhelmingly passed the legislation the families sought.

But as the families and their advocates turn their attention to the Senate, they will face a coalition of powerful and savvy lobbyists led by international cruise-line businesses, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the oil industry.

The Death on the High Seas Act currently prevents the victims' families from suing BP, Transocean Ltd. and the other companies involved in the busted drilling operation for compensation other than funeral expenses and a portion of the workers' lost wages.

Unless the law is changed, the companies are immune from potentially costly lawsuits that Jones and others see as the best way to keep firms from recklessly risking workers' lives.

"Whoever ultimately bears the blame [for the explosion] will have to pay money to compensate the families of these 11 dead workers," Jones told a panel of lawmakers at a hearing last month. "How much that will be is up to you."

The bill that passed in the House on Thursday would allow the families of the workers killed offshore to sue for pain and suffering and loss of care, compassion and comfort. The change would also apply to passengers of ships on the high seas, including cruise lines.

Business groups and cruise companies oppose the change, arguing that it would expose maritime industries to new costs and legal burdens.

"We did a full-court lobbying press, yes," said Matthew Webb, senior vice president for legal reform policy at the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. "But it wasn't just us. It was many members of the business community."

The chamber voiced early objections to some provisions, which were eventually removed from the bill. But that wasn't enough to gain the support of the business lobby, which argues that the legislation could damage the maritime economy by making it more expensive for companies to operate on the high seas.

The Cruise Lines International Assn. said in a statement that the bill would allow "foreign nationals to seek damages in American courts for incidents that occur outside our boundaries and have no connection to the U.S."

Moments before the bill's passage, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) took the floor, a poster with photos of Gordon Jones beside him. Melancon said the bill would fix outdated laws that "encourage companies to take risks, gambling with the lives of workers."

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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