A federal judge’s decision Friday publicly revealed a legal battle the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have apparently been trying to keep quiet: the team’s claim of millions of dollars in damages for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that ruined lives, killed billions of animals and decimated the Gulf of Mexico's ecosystem.
Judge Gregg J. Costa of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected the team’s request to seal the courtroom for its legal challenge against the payout it received from the BP oil spill. The decision’s conclusion:
As is its right, Claimant ID 100246928 has used the federal courts in its attempt to obtain millions of dollars it believes BP owes because of the oil spill. But it should not able to benefit from this public resource while treating it like a private tribunal when there is no good reason to do so. On Monday, the public will be able to access the courtroom it pays for.
BP has paid out billions in legal decisions and fines for the damages caused by its negligence in the run-up to the ecological disaster in 2010, when a drilling rig explosion led to the release of roughly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s not entirely clear how the Buccaneers were affected by the catastrophe (for starters, the team’s stadium is landlocked), but it seems the team is still fighting to receive a small fortune for its troubles. Tampa Bay wasn’t among the communities that had large globs of oil wash ashore, but the ecologically consequential nature of massive oil spills means there could have been plenty of collateral effects.
Why the Bucs wanted to keep their BP claim quiet
In his decision, Costa mentions three reasons the Buccaneers listed for why they wanted to keep their claim a secret:
The legal briefs reportedly discuss confidential financial data, like their payout from the NFL, that would “likely” come up during oral arguments
Opening the courtroom would gratify BP’s “private spite," "promote public scandal" and "harm [the team's] competitive standing," essentially saying that BP wants the Bucs to be publicly shamed for requesting the money
The team claimed to have an expectation of secrecy for the claim process under an agreement for the settlement program against BP
Costa said none of those arguments “comes close” to overriding the court’s interest in transparency.
Tampa Bay Lightning also a claimant against BP
Also undermining the Buccaneers’ request for a closed courtroom is the fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning are going through the same process and never requested the same privacy:
The court will leave it to others to guess why the team is so concerned about public disclosure of its claim when numerous other BP claimants in the appeals inundating our court are not. Just three months into this year, at least ten Deepwater Horizon decisions naming the claimants have issued. Among them is one from another of Tampa Bay's professional sports franchises, the NHL's Lightning ... The court is unable to discern any reason for keeping secret the oil-spill claim of a football team when the claim of a hockey team (and of course those of numerous other businesses) is a public matter.
Per the decision Costa references, the Lightning were awarded $788,123.66 for their claim. The team challenged that ruling, arguing that errors from the Court Supervised Settlement Program incorrectly reduced its award from approximately $12,466,646.
That gives us a rough framework of the dollars the Bucs and BP are fighting over, but there are still plenty of unknowns in the Bucs’ case, chiefly the team’s reasoning for why it’s entitled to it. Thanks to Costa’s decision, we might be able to see how it plays out.
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