When rescued workers were brought ashore following the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig last month, officials with drilling giant Transocean presented them with forms stating they had not been injured and that they had no first-hand knowledge of what happened. Lawyers for the workers are now crying foul about what they say is an all too common industry practice to impeach workers' credibility in future legal proceedings.
Some workers are saying they were coerced into signing the form, a charge Transocean denies. But the episode is reminiscent of reports that BP presented Alabama fishermen with contracts that included a no-sue clause in exchange for $5,000.
The rig exploded April 20, killing 11 members of the 126-person crew. When the survivors finally came ashore on a rescue boat at Port Fourchon, Louisiana -- 27 hours after the accident, according to Transocean -- they were brought to the Crowne Plaza Hotel outside the New Orleans airport.
There, they were presented with this one-page form (obtained and posted by NPR), with two sections for workers to initial:
I was not a witness to the incident requiring the evacuation and have no first hand or personal knowledge regarding the incident.________
I was not injured as a result of the incident of evacuation.
Rig worker Chris Choy, 23, told the PBS NewsHour: "It shouldn't count, because I had been up for almost 40 hours, and just gone through hell. And they want to throw papers in my face for me to sign to take them, you know, out of their responsibility."
In an interview with TPMmuckraker, Tony Buzbee, a Houston attorney representing 10 of the rig workers, who has also sued BP and Transocean after previous accidents, said that such forms are quite common after "mass casualty" accidents on land or at sea. He said the statements can come back to haunt workers during a deposition or at trial.
"It not only protects them against that individual worker, but it might protect them against that worker being a witness for someone else," Buzbee says.
"It's used in several ways: number one, if the worker later is called as a witness to say, 'Yes, I saw Joe Blow fall down the stairs.' Then this statement is thrown in his face," says Buzbee. "Later if the guy's neck begins to hurt and he seeks treatment, they stick the statement in his face and say, 'Well you told us on the day of the incident you weren't hurt.'"
Following reports about the form from the AP and NPR, Transocean, which is based in Switzerland, issued a statement Tuesday with an account of the rescue and what happened at the hotel.
"Upon arriving at the hotel, crew members were offered the opportunity to meet with qualified medical professionals, to retire to private rooms where they could eat, shower and sleep, or go home," the statements says. "Only then did Transocean and its representatives present crew members with a standard one-page document that asked them to describe where they were at the time of the incident, what they were doing, and to affirm, if true, that they were not a witness and/or that they were not injured. They were free to complete the form at their leisure, or not at all. Some crew members even took the forms home and returned them more than seven days after the incident."
Buzbee fires back that while there may be a few outliers, most of the crew probably signed the forms immediately. He notes that some of his clients are intensely loyal to the company after years on the job, particularly since they often make salaries far above what is typical for their education level.
"When I encourage my employees to do something, guess what? They do it. These are subordinates," he says. "It's very easy for Transocean to get them to sign something like that, especially when all they're thinking about is getting back to their families."
And NPR reports that the company is already leveraging the statements to its advantage:
Documents show those initials now are being used against the survivors as they file lawsuits seeking payment for emotional distress and other claims. [Houston Attorney Steven] Gordon says "When we were hired by one of the survivors, we gave notice to Transocean's lawyers. And the immediate response was, 'Wow, we're surprised. Here's a statement that says he's not hurt.'"
Late Update: It turns out a Democratic congressman grilled Transocean CEO Steven Newman on this very issue at a hearing today.
Talking Points Memo
May 11, 2010