On Sunday, U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan prevented oil giant BP from having ad hoc local workers sign agreements releasing the company from any liability in the cleanup efforts.

Shrimpers, oyster harvesters and others who work on the water, concerned about protecting their livelihoods, have asked BP to hire them as daily contractors to fight the spill from the company’s Deepwater Horizon operation.

When fisherman George Barasich learned that BP was “forcing” the workers to sign away certain rights and absolve the oil company of liability, he went to court.

“Several hundred” fishers, many non-English speaking Vietnamese, signed the BP contracts that also imposed strict confidentiality rules on the workers, said Val Exnicios, a lawyer representing fishers in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.

“They didn’t know what the hell they were signing,” Exnicios said in an interview. “They know these bayous and inlets better than anybody, so BP hired them but said they had to sign these contracts that release us from any liability past, present and future and also absolute confidentiality, meaning they couldn’t talk to anybody about anything they saw while out there doing the clean up.”

Barasich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association, went to court Sunday with a legal team led by the law firm Stag Smith LLC and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

“To be clear, the very people whose livelihood and culture have been put at great risk of destruction, such as Barasich and the men and women he represents, are being dictated by BP on the terms by which they will be ‘allowed’ to volunteer to protect the fishing grounds and oyster beds of Louisiana,” attorney Stuart Smith said in a press release.

According to the agreement with BP, the workers would not be able to:

  • sue for compensation in case of accident or injury
  • talk to reporters without BP approval
  • immediately pursue legal claims against BP. The oil company required a 30-day wait, even in an emergency.

BP also asked that the workers add the company to their personally paid insurance policies for damages or injuries meaning that the workers’ insurance would have to cover BP.

Berrigan’s ruling voided all existing contracts and ordered the company to remove these provisions from any replacement and new contracts.