Oil Spill Spurring Lawsuits Across Panhandle

An explosion on a BP oil rig last month that has resulted in the biggest oil spill in recent history has spurred at least eight lawsuits in federal court from Panhandle residents whose livelihoods could be upended by the spill.

Commercial fishermen, real estate executives, beach front property owners and restaurateurs have all filed suit against BP, in addition to rig owner TransOcean and contractor Haliburton Energy Services.

“The oil spill and contamination have caused and will continue to cause loss of revenue for persons (and businesses) who are being prevented from using the Gulf of Mexico and Florida's coastal zone for diverse activities, including work and to earn a living,” wrote Tim Howard, an attorney for George Weems Ward, an East Point fisherman named as a plaintiff in a class action suit against BP.

BP is still trying to stop the flow of oil from the damaged well in the Gulf, and Florida officials are expecting oil to reach state shorelines by Thursday wreaking havoc for many Panhandle businesses that fear they could face a significant financial hit if the spill keeps tourists away from Florida beaches and local fisheries are forced to close.

BP has earmarked $25 million for Florida for the first wave of cleanup work. The money will be used to repay local governments for work already done. Escambia County, for example, has already spent $1.2 million.Gov. Charlie Crist has also said that the state could potentially sue BP if it does not adequately help Florida with problems associated with the spill.

The suits filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida over the past week seek a minimum of $5 million but ask that juries consider punitive damages on top of that of $5 million.

Lawyers for Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola, one of the plaintiffs in another class action suit, noted that the oil slick will have harmful effects to the state's marine environments, severely impacting “ commercial fishing, seafood processing, distribution and consumption, and tourism and tourism related activities.”

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward has said publicly that the company is prepared to pay all legitimate claims associated with the oil spill.

"We will absolutely be paying for the cleanup operation. There is no doubt about that. It's our responsibility — we accept it fully” Hayward told National Public Radio Monday.

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