Gulf Oil Spill: How Transocean Made Its Legal Headache Worse By Playing the Heavy

Last Updated May 11, 2010 6:15 PM EDT

Transocean's (RIG) legal response in the first 48 hours after its Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico will fuel -- not prevent -- the liability fire against the company. Rescued workers, many of them who hadn't slept in more than 30 hours, were asked by Transocean representatives to sign legal statements before they were allowed to leave a hotel and contact family members.

This is not a way to build loyalty in a company's most dire hour. And it's not even sound legal strategy. Experts believe the statements, which were collected after workers had narrowly escaped the rig explosion that killed 11 men, wouldn't even hold up in court. So what did the company gain with this circling of the legal wagons? In management's rush to protect itself, it succeeded in eroding any trust among employees. Lawmakers and the public are also on guard.

Transocean CEO Steven Newman tried to deflect suspicion surrounding the statements and told senators at a congressional hearing Tuesday that these weren't liability waivers. Instead, he said, Transocean was merely trying to find out what happened and then help workers receive medical care and provide them with clothing, food and water. Transocean also helped with travel arrangements since most workers didn't have any identification on them, Newman said during the Q&A portion of the hearing.

Transocean may have done all of those things. But they also asked workers to sign a form letter, which confirms they were on board the Deepwater Horizon and were forced to evacuate. After stating these obvious facts, workers were asked to initial two statements (provided by the Houston Chronicle):

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 or evacuation.

At least one attorney, who is representing three Transocean workers and the family of another who died, has said he expects these statements or disclaimers to be followed by requests to sign a legal waiver they won't sue.

Transocean's claims that this was merely a fact-finding mission are shady at best. Their response to lawsuits filed by survivors is enough to show the company put its legal protection efforts at the top of the to-do list. After receiving notice of one lawsuit, Transocean's lawyers reportedly feigned surprise and immediately mentioned the signed statement.

Transocean management had to consider liability from the get-go. Their rig had just exploded and sank. Workers were missing and survivors were injured. But in their haste, management didn't properly consider the fallout from herding up survivors -- before they had seen family -- and getting them to sign a form letter that probably has no real legal standing.

Photo of Deepwater Horizon oil rig from the U.S. Coast Guard See additional BNET coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: