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BP defeated thousands of suits by sick Gulf spill cleanup workers. But not one by a boat captain

By TRAVIS LOLLER and MICHAEL PHILLIS, Associated Press
Published: April 19, 2024, 5:28pm
3 Photos
FILE - Oil makes a pattern in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010.
FILE - Oil makes a pattern in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) Photo Gallery

John Maas spent years buying and outfitting a 17-foot aluminum boat called the Superskiff 1 so he could take customers fishing for sea trout and flounder in the Gulf of Mexico.

But before the Mississippi captain could make his first charter trip in 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up 120 miles (193 kilometers) to the south, killing 11 people and sending many millions of gallons of oil into the sea.

As for many along the Gulf coast, the disaster changed Maas’ life. Fishing stopped when oil contaminated the water, so he used his boat to help clean up the spill. It was nasty work under oppressive, humid heat in oily water and around the chemical dispersant Corexit deployed in massive quantities to break up oil.

Maas said the Corexit smelled like burning brake fluid and caused his eyes to water and skin to burn. “You were coughing and things like that. It’s like tear gas almost,” he said in an interview.

Four years later, he was diagnosed with chemically induced asthma. Today, the former Marine — who never smoked and always stayed fit, running with his dog on the beach and keeping up with fishermen 15 years younger — gets winded just walking around his deck at home.

BP paid criminal penalties for the disaster and would eventually spend billions of dollars to settle claims for economic damage and environmental devastation. But after more than a decade of litigation following the largest offshore U.S. oil spill, Maas may well be the only person to receive a BP settlement for his injuries through an individual lawsuit. Thousands of similar cases have been thrown out without ever going to a jury.

Maas succeeded where more than 99% failed by being smart, sometimes pig-headed and, in the end, lucky. His saga illustrates how extremely hard it is for workers who claim they were sickened by the spill to receive meaningful compensation.

Maas worked with four different law firms and even carried the case on his own for months, writing motions longhand on white legal pads and sending them via U.S. mail.

Finally, 12 years after the spill, BP agreed to pay Maas $110,000, according to a confidential copy provided to The Associated Press. The company denied liability for his illness. BP declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

“I know this is going to shorten my life tremendously,” the 61-year-old Maas said of his illness. “And I know I’m going to have continued issues related to the spill.”

BOAT CAPTAIN’S LONG ROAD

At every turn, Maas narrowly avoided the fate that befell others.

He first signed up with The Nations Law Firm, based in Houston, but dropped them in 2016 when legal fees shrank his $1,300 check from a class-action settlement between BP and cleanup workers’ attorneys.

After two unhappy years with a second law firm that couldn’t file his federal lawsuit due to paperwork problems, Maas hired a Miami-based law firm, which filed one in Louisiana in 2020.

Almost immediately, they butted heads. Maas says the firm sent him a declaration that his eyes were splashed with contaminated water while he picked up tar balls.

“This was a scripted thing for the dudes who walked down the beach in the (protective) suits with a little shovel, and a broom, and a bag,” he said. “I was a master boat captain.”

Maas didn’t like the mistake. He also wanted his case heard in Tennessee, where he had moved. This time, the law firm dumped Maas.

NEARING A WIN

Maas next pressed his case against BP on his own for nine months and got it moved to Tennessee.

“I think most people would be very hesitant on writing their own motions to court, which I was, but I’m dumb enough not to even be embarrassed by spelling things wrong and and not having it set up right,” he said.

In late 2020, Maas secured the services of Tennessee attorney Ken Burger. Initially reluctant, Burger decided to get involved after examining spill worker injury suits.

“The more I looked at it, the madder I got,” he recalled. “My frame of mind was, I don’t give a damn if I don’t get a dollar out of this. They’re (BP) going to answer my questions.”

As with hundreds of similar suits, BP tried to get Maas’ thrown out by arguing he couldn’t prove the exact level and duration of his exposures to oil and Corexit.

But Maas had two things going for him.

First was expert testimony from Corexit researcher Dr. Veena Antony, a professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Alabama, who told the court she believes there’s no safe level of the oil dispersant one could inhale. Maas and his deckhand had testified they were “crop dusted” with Corexit, taking in lungsful.

The second advantage was that the federal judge in Tennessee who heard his case was less conservative than those in Gulf states when it came to proving a connection between toxic chemical exposure and illness.

“Mr. Maas does not have to establish he was exposed to a specific dose of Corexit” for his case to continue, U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw Jr. said in 2021, noting Maas’ doctor testified the boat captain was exposed daily for a long period.

After the judge ordered mediation, BP settled.

BP never admitted wrongdoing, and Maas’ attorney carefully frames the outcome: Unlike cases “from New Orleans to Pensacola to Galveston to Tampa … we were able to resolve Captain Maas’ case in a manner agreeable to the parties.”

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Since Maas’ case, the lawyer said many spill workers have asked him to take theirs, but he refused. “I don’t think any of these cases are winnable,” he said.

And his Corexit expert witness says she’s loath to testify in any more contentious cleanup suits.

“As a physician, I feel terrible for these people,” Antony said. “But … I’m not a lawyer. I wish I was in some ways; I would fight for them.”

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