CONCORD, N.H.—Families of those killed in the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that triggered the country's worst oil spill are treated unfairly under current maritime laws, the president of Colby-Sawyer College told a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday.
Testifying in Washington, Thomas Galligan told the Senate Judiciary Committee that when it comes to compensating victims' families, current laws are inconsistent and may encourage oil companies to act irresponsibly.
"Sadly, an analysis of the relevant laws reveals a climate of limited liability, under compensation and the possibility of increased risk," said Galligan, who has authored several books on maritime law and has taught law school classes on the subject.
The committee held a one-day hearing to examine how applicable laws have shaped the behavior of oil companies.
Under two 1920 laws, victims' families who bring wrongful death cases can be compensated for the loss of economic support but can not recover damages for the loss of their loved one's comfort and companionship. That's inconsistent with laws that apply to wrongful deaths that occur on land, said Galligan.
Congress amended the maritime law in 2000 to allow such damages when people die in commercial plane crashes at sea, but the law doesn't apply to someone killed on a cruise ship or semi-submersible floating rig.
"The law should be the same for all," he said. "A spouse, child, parent, or sibling who loses a loved one suffers a very real loss and the law should recognize that loss."
Inadequate compensation also can affect the risks companies take, he said.
"If the law does not force a person to take account of the costs of accidents when deciding what to do, he or she may well under-invest in safety and therefore increase risk to people, to property, to businesses and to natural resources," he said.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced legislation later Tuesday to permit families of victims killed on the high seas to seek non-economic damages. He said updating the law in 2000 was the right thing to do but did not go far enough.
"Congress made some strides in modernizing this law then. Now it must finish the job," he said.
The committee also heard from Christopher Jones of Baton Rouge, La., whose brother, Gordon, was among the 11 workers killed in the April 20 explosion. He showed members pictures of a backyard fort his brother was building for his two young sons.
"It is not finished. Gordon planned to finish it when he got home," he said. "This is yet another example of an incomplete life and what has been lost."
He quoted the words that appear over the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court building: "Equal Justice Under Law."
"You have an opportunity to make this right and create equal justice under law for these families," he said.
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