Florida lawsuit cites Center’s investigation of BP refinery violations

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A class-action lawsuit against BP seeking compensation on behalf of Florida condominium owners for decreased property values as a result of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cites Center for Public Integrity data analysis as part of an effort to show willful criminal conduct by the oil giant.

The civil suit was brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and filed in federal court in northern Florida. In referring to previous BP environmental problems and fines, the lawsuit specifically notes a Center investigative story published on May 16 that analyzed Occupational Safety and Health Administration refinery inspection records showing two BP refineries accounted for 97 percent of all flagrant violations issued by the agency from 2007 through 2009.

The BP refinery inspection data was obtained by the Center under the Freedom of Information Act. It showed BP received a total of 862 citations between June 2007 and February 2010 for alleged OSHA violations at its refinery in Texas City – the site of a deadly 2005 explosion —and at its refinery in Toledo, Ohio. “The damaged marine, coastal and estuarine environment from the oil spill has directly injured the values of Plaintiffs’ coastal properties,” the lawsuit said.

“It shows their corporate criminal history,” said Brian Barr, a partner with a Pensacola law firm representing condo owners in five Florida Panhandle counties in the case filed last month. “In a RICO case you are trying to show they are a corrupt enterprise and they’ve been a corrupt enterprise for a period of time. It’s just like if some were to conduct an indictment. They would list their acts so you know what kind of felon you’re dealing with.”

The RICO law is often associated with organized crime cases, but it also allows private parties with a damaged business or property to sue. The law is an attractive tool for plaintiffs’ lawyers because it allows for more extensive civil penalties, including tripling the amount of actual damages.

To win a RICO suit, plaintiffs must show a pattern of racketeering activities. In this case the Florida condo owners contend BP fraudulently acquired oil lease contracts by pressuring the U.S. Minerals Management Service to approve offshore oil drilling projects despite obvious environmental and safety risks. Additionally, the plaintiffs state BP claimed it could clean up any spills even though the company knew it could not.

BP declined to comment.

The two named defendants in the case are BP and BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward. Other defendants, however, such as Transocean Ltd., owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, and Halliburton Co, a contractor that performed work on the well, could also be added to the lawsuit, Barr said.

The lawsuit seeks triple actual damages, punitive damages, and attorney fees and was filed on behalf of Robert L. Rinke, who owns a condo in Pensacola Beach and other condo owners in five northern Florida counties.

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