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Gulf Oil Spill Victims’ Required To Give Up Their Right To Sue

January 18, 2011

By: Eric Steinberg

According to an Associated Press report this week, the administrator of the $20 billion victim’s fund for the Gulf oil spill is standing firm: those accepting a final compensation payment from BP must give up their right to sue anyone else or for punitive damages. Attorneys for the victims want a federal judge to intervene so that victims don’t have to give up their right to further punitive damages after payment, and their right to sue other parties for further compensatory damages. Who’s right, BP or the victims?

This brings up a general question about the “right to sue” and whether or not a person can “sign away” or “waive legal rights” to sue. It’s a complicated question. The simple answer is yes; you can sign away your right to sue. However, the more complicated answer is, it depends. We will have to wait to find out what happens in Louisiana, but it is critical to understand our rights when we are injured in an accident.

Do we have a constitutional “right to sue”, no matter what? Suing is not a constitutionally guaranteed freedom like free speech or property rights. Those rights — the safeguards of our freedom – limit the power of government to act on a citizen. Suing, by contrast, is a private citizen’s use of the government’s power to compel another private citizen or corporation to compensate or pay him for damages suffered.

The right to file a civil grievance and petition a court is fundamental to our legal system. In fact, it dates back hundreds of years, even before our nation’s founding. It was part of England’s Common Law and was a way to hold to account those responsible for injury. It’s not revenge, but rather designed to protect people from others who might be negligent or otherwise responsible for the injury. The right to a civil action allows the injured person to “become whole again.” This principle holds true today. If someone causes you harm, a group of your peers should be able to determine what they think is necessary to repair the wrong.

There is something to learn from what BP is trying to do. Never sign anything until you know all your rights after an accident. This is why it is so important to contact an attorney when you are injured. Unscrupulous people and insurance companies may try to get you to “waive your rights” by signing something to limit their liability. It is good to be suspicious of any attempt to “buy you off” before you’ve had a chance to understand the full extent of your injuries and your rights under the law.