Lauren E. Hume


Are We Sailing in Occupied Waters?: Rethinking the Availability of Punitive Damages Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990

Lauren E. Hume

Litigants’ briefs in the myriad cases arising from the Deepwater Horizon explosion
raise questions about the extent to which the Oil Pollution Act’s two savings clauses
preserve additional remedies, such as punitive damages. A large number of comprehensive
federal frameworks include savings clauses that anticipate supplementing
the statute with additional federal or state law. When these clauses are
ambiguous, the statute and precedent may not suffice to resolve the ambiguity. This
Note explores how economic policy, specifically optimal deterrence theory, may be
used to resolve whether the Oil Pollution Act’s ambiguous maritime savings clause
preserves or precludes maritime punitive damages. Optimal deterrence theory bolsters
the Supreme Court’s recent repeated affirmances of using maritime punitive
damages to supplement federal statutes, providing a firmer justification for the
argument that two lower courts wrongly held that the Act precludes the maritime
damages for oil spill injuries. Having resolved the ambiguity caused by the interaction
between maritime punitive damages and the Oil Pollution Act with optimal
deterrence theory, I conclude by proposing a framework that courts could use to
determine when and how to award maritime punitive damages for oil spill injuries
in particular cases, integrating the common law remedy with the statutory scheme.