Monday, October 18, 2010

Wait, They Can Do That?

Mother Jones' Mac McClelland, who has been on top of the oil spill story from Day One, tweeted about this article detailing the possibility that BP might refuse to pay damage claims beyond $75 million. Apparently this is due to something called the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which limits damages that can be awarded due to an oil spill to that amount plus cleanup costs.

This law is an obviously hideous idea - why anyone would want to protect someone who spilled shit-tons of oil from having to pay people whose property they fucked up is beyond me. It's like passing a law saying that if I burn down your house, I only have to pay you $50 plus whatever it costs to shovel the ashes off your lot. You say you lost $800,000 worth of assets in that fire? Sorry, dude, you get $50. Good luck with that other $799,950, though.

But beyond the stupidity and cravenness required to pass such a law in the first place, I'd just like to ask this question: how the hell can such a law possibly be constitutional?

Think about it this way. Say BP has been found liable for damage that results from the oil spill (not a horrible assumption here). The first ten people to sue each have $7.5 million of damage to their property. You're the 11th. Surprise - now you have no right to sue BP for destroying your property! No money left under the cap, see.

The right to a lawsuit is never enumerated - were I a judge I would presume it to exist under the Ninth Amendment, but there lies shaky ground - but thanks to the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, you can't grant some group of wronged property owners the right to sue BP and not grant another group of wronged property owners the right to sue BP. If you're going to let some people collect damages from BP, you can't disallow others with legitimate claims from doing the same. So restricting the 11th person from suing when you let the first 10 sue strikes me as a violation of equal protection, and I see no compelling state interest (or rational basis even, though y'all know how I feel about that standard) in protecting a private corporation from their full liability under the common law.

So, legal eagles, how is that law justified under the Constitution?


Matthew B. Novak said...

I think you could probably still sue. And still get a judgment. They just wouldn't have to pay it.

Ben said...

Don't know exactly, but I have yet to hear of any constitutional challenge to such laws being successful. Really, I have yet to hear of any constitutional challenges to such laws.

Mike said...

Silly Jeff! You think the Constitution still matters...