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President Galligan Provides U.S. Congress with Maritime Law Expertise in Gulf of Mexico Disaster

President Tom Galligan, an expert in maritime law, was deeply involved in the national discussions of legal issues related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which began on Apr. 20, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and killed 11 workers. On Jun. 30, President Galligan testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation regarding maritime liability under the Death on the High Seas Act and the Limitation of Liability Act. For the committee, headed by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, President Galligan was asked to offer his views on the subject “The Deepwater Horizon Tragedy: Holding Industry Accountable.” Senator and Chairman Patrick Leahy invited him to testify at the Jun. 8 hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on “The Risky Business of Big Oil: Have Recent Court Decisions and Liability Caps Encouraged Irresponsible Corporate Behavior?” On May 27, President Galligan testified on similar issues before a hearing of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House, “Legal Liability Issues Surrounding the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster,” following an invitation from Representative and Chair John Conyers.

As one of three witnesses on Jun. 8, President Galligan told the Senate committee that the staggering consequences of the oil spill had forced them to examine whether maritime law provides adequate compensation to victims and ensures sufficient investments in safety by oil companies. In his view, the relevant statutes—the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), which were passed in 1920 and apply to wrongful death actions—do not allow for “loss of society” damages, compensation to survivors for the loss of care, comfort and companionship caused by the death of their loved one. Additionally, the Ship Owner's Limitation of Liability Act (LOLA), passed in 1851, allows owners of vessels (including semi–submersible oil rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon) to severely limit their legal liability in maritime disasters.

President Galligan pointed out that these statutes and tort laws, have led the courts to subsequently expand these rules to other maritime contexts, which he believes not only deprive injured persons of adequate compensation but also fail to deter companies from engaging in unsafe behaviors. “Sadly, an analysis of the relevant laws reveals a climate of limited liability, under-compensation and increased risk,” President Galligan told the committee.

In the hearings, President Galligan described aspects of maritime law as unjust, dated, inconsistent and out of alignment with current values, as well as failing in the intent of tort laws to bring about corrective justice and deter behavior that poses substantial risks to people, property and the environment. He urged Congress to act and reverse legislative trends based on these “archaic” statutes. “Amendment and reform is both possible and necessary,” he said.

Engaged in the World

In May and June, while the nation watched in horror as millions of gallons of oil continued to gush from the damaged Deepwater Horizon rig into the Gulf of Mexico, President Galligan was called on to step beyond the traditional role of college president and use his legal expertise to advocate for justice for the victims of this ongoing national catastrophe.

In the process, he and Colby-Sawyer College were thrust into the media spotlight around the world. President Galligan's testimony before the U.S. Congressional hearings was covered extensively by national and even international media. He was interviewed by the Associated Press, which distributes its stories and photographs to media internationally, as well as by CBS News, The New York Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, with his statements included in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and many other print and broadcast media.

Prior to the first hearing with the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, President Galligan admitted to feeling a bit anxious. “After 24 years as a teacher and academic administrator, I was about to testify in Congress as an expert witness on maritime law. I admit I was nervous,” he said. That changed when he heard the testimony of the first witness, Keith Jones, an attorney in Baton Rouge, La., whose son, Gordon, a 28-year-old engineer, was killed in the oil rig explosion.

“Listening to Keith speak with emotion, reason, clarity and concern about what his and the other families were going through focused me not on my nerves, but on what I hoped to accomplish,” President Galligan said, “which was to inform Congress about the inadequacies of our current laws and to urge the members to amend the laws to make them fair, logical, modern and consistent.”

At the subsequent Senate hearing, President Galligan listened to the testimony of another witness, Christopher K. Jones, the brother of Gordon Jones, while photographs flashed on a large screen of the family Gordon left behind—a wife and two sons—one born just weeks after the tragic accident.

“The applicable laws do not provide them any redress for the loss of care, comfort and companionship for the death of their husband, father, son and sibling,” President Galligan said. “It is the same for the families of the other ten workers killed in the explosion on Apr. 20.”

Prior to the hearings, President Galligan served as co-chair of the Gulf Oil Symposium held in New Orleans on May 25. The symposium, sponsored by the Louisiana State Bar Association, addressed the legal community on the complex legislative issues that were likely to arise from the Gulf accident and oil spill. The symposium gave President Galligan another opportunity to engage in issues of maritime law in Louisiana, the state most dramatically affected by the Gulf disaster and, coincidently, where he developed his interest in this distinct body of law.

From 1986 until May 1998, he taught at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. There he was encouraged by his fellow law professor and mentor, Frank L. Maraist, to study maritime law, which was widely practiced in Louisiana, where New Orleans is one of the nation's largest commercial seaports.

Subsequently, President Galligan has published numerous books and articles on torts and marine law, some in collaboration with Professor Maraist. His scholarship has been cited by numerous legal scholars, the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal and state appellate and trial courts.

*- Kimberly Swick Slover