NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Twenty fishermen from Mississippi sued BP in Federal Court, saying the oil company chartered their boats after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill but hasn't paid up. The fishermen say BP's Vessels of Opportunity Program took their boats out of commission for other work, and that BP failed to decontaminate the boats, as it promised. The fishermen's attorney said more such lawsuits are expected.
The fishermen say BP's charter requirements prevented them "from using their vessels in any ways other than BP-designated work, until final decontamination or verification of final decontamination. "On or about September 2, 2010, plaintiffs, or most of them, received correspondence from BP purporting to terminate the charters, but BP has failed to perform decontamination of many of plaintiffs' vessels and/or has failed to pay plaintiffs through verification of final contamination."
Many of the fishermen say they removed their own equipment from the boats to make room for BP's equipment. They signed agreements giving BP exclusive use of their boats, which precluded them from using their boats for other charters. And because the boats were used in oil, they must be decontaminated before they can be cleared for other use.
"The charter agreements were all drafted by BP, and plaintiffs sought work for their vessels in mitigation of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, pursuant to BP's advertised Vessel's of Opportunity Program," the complaint states.
"Plaintiffs sought work for their vessels by entering in BP's charters, attending training as required by BP, and otherwise complying with BP's requirements including having their vessels equipped as required by BP.
"Some plaintiffs, in order to comply with BP's requirements for activation, had to remove rigging and other equipment essential for commercial fishing. Once activated, charter payments were supposed to be made as stated in the charter party documents. As a condition for chartering their vessels to BP ... plaintiffs were prohibited from using their vessels in any other endeavors. In addition, as a consequence to chartering their vessels to BP, plaintiffs, due to environmental and/or regulatory and/ or concerns of being fined by government agencies, were unable to use the vessels in any other endeavors until decontamination and/or verification of final decontamination was provided. Plaintiffs have invoiced BP for the charter hire, but BP has failed to make payment in full."
A July 7, 2010 log from the Vessels of Opportunity Program shows that BP had more than 5,000 commercial and personal fishing vessels ready to put in the water, with an average of 3,000 vessels in the water daily, more than 85 percent of which were registered as commercial or charter fishing vessels.
BP's log states that the point of its Vessels of Opportunity program was "to employ those who were making a living from fishing on the sea at the time the spill began."
But the fishermen say: "BP's failure to make payment in full to plaintiffs and, by its actions, prevented plaintiffs from using their vessels in other endeavors unjustly enriched BP and unjustly impoverished plaintiffs. BP is therefore liable to plaintiffs on the basis of unjust enrichment."
They seek compensation for unpaid time at the rate specified in the charter, from activation through deactivation, and reimbursement for repairs, modifications and maintenance of the boats, pursuant to the agreement.
Attorney for the plaintiffs, Bernard Ticer of Baldwin Haspel in New Orleans, said Wednesday that a similar claim has been filed in Alabama, and "that doesn't even touch all the people in Louisiana," who presumably will file claims for breach of charter party agreements with the oil company.
"I expect that there are going to be more people who are in the same boat - so to speak," Ticer said.
The complaint will be consolidated along with all the other oil spill-related claims before New Orleans Federal Judge Carl Barbier.