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Gulf oil spill: Brother of oil-rig worker who died in explosion pleads for compensation

June 8, 2010 | 12:30 pm

 Christopher JonesThe brother of one of the 11 workers killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion pleaded with Congress on Tuesday to change an 80-year-old law that limited liability for wrongful deaths at sea. "You have an opportunity to make this right," Christopher K. Jones told the Senate Judiciary Committee, his voice breaking. Jones' brother, 28-year-old Gordon, died in the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion.

On the 50th day of the Gulf of Mexico crisis, an effort to rewrite liability laws moved center stage on Capitol Hill, coming as the survivors of the rig workers prepared to meet with President Obama later this week. Democratic lawmakers are pressing to change the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act to allow families of those killed in international waters to recover not only lost wages but also non-economic damages, such as lost companionship.

"I happen to believe that if you engaged in drilling and can create this level of damage, it carries with it a responsibility that you accept liability for the damage," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. "If you cannot accept that liability, stay the hell out of the business."

In an emotional appearance, Jones referred to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward’s remark last week that he "would like his life back." Jones countered, "Well, Mr. Hayward, I want my brother’s life back."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) planned to introduce the Survivors Equality Act to make the change. During the hearing, he told Jones, "You deserve a measure of justice."

The effort could get caught up in a partisan election-year fight. Republicans over the years have accused Democrats of seeking to rewrite liability laws to benefit trial lawyers, a big source of campaign contributions to Democrats, and have expressed concern that such efforts could burden business.

The committee hearing was titled “The Risky Business Of Big Oil: Have Recent Court Decisions and Liability Caps Encouraged Irresponsible Corporate Behavior?"

Jones, a Baton Rouge, La., attorney, told the committee that survivors of the perished workers were "committed to telling our story so we can try and correct the inequities in the law."

And Jones seemed to surprise senators when he said that nobody from BP had contacted the family. "They've made no phone call, no nothing, to make any effort to reach out and at least extend their sympathies."

Besides his brother, Gordon Jones is survived by his wife, Michelle, and two sons, Stafford, 2, and Max, who was born three weeks ago. Also attending the hearing was Gordon’s father, Keith D. Jones, an attorney who recently appeared before the House Judiciary Committee.

Under current law, Christopher Jones told the committee, the parties responsible for his brother’s death could "calculate what his earnings would be; subtract out the income taxes he would have paid ... [and] subtract out what he would have consumed himself."

But he said the law didn’t allow his brother’s survivors to "recover for life experiences, for the comfort and care that Gordon would have provided his sons and the support he would have provided to his wife over the years."

The current law, Leahy said, "does not recognize all that is lost with the death of a loved one," adding that the disparity between what a family can recover from a death at sea versus on land "adds further insult to the 11 families who are victims of this tragedy."

The Death on the High Seas Act was amended in 2000 in response to the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which killed 23 people off Long Island, to allow families of victims of air crashes at sea (but not vessel accidents) to recover non-economic damages for "loss of care, comfort and companionship," in addition to economic damages.

Congress also is looking at strengthening a law passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster to boost -- or perhaps eliminate entirely -- the $75 -million cap on industry’s liability for economic damages from spills. It also may rewrite an 1851 law that Transocean Inc., the drilling-rig owner, is using in court in an effort to limit its liability to $26.7 million.

The hearing came as Senate Democratic leaders unveiled a tax bill that would raise the per barrel tax on oil from 8 cents to 41 cents to help pay for an oil spill cleanup fund – 7 cents higher than a House-approved increase.

Hayward, meanwhile, will make his first public appearance before Congress next week (June 17), testifying before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee.

-- Richard Simon in Washington

Christopher Jones testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8, 2010. Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari / Associated Press