- - Sunday, December 29, 2013

The sharks are circling in the Gulf of Mexico. A federal judge on Christmas Eve delivered a ruling that puts BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, at the mercy of anyone who claims he or she lost business as a result of the infamous 2010 oil spill. Even hookers are getting a piece of the action.

The company once courted environmentalists with a slogan of “Beyond Petroleum,” and then one of its oil wells blew out, fouling the Gulf with an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil. Thousands suffered actual and authentic losses and deserve to be made whole again, but the scent of cash has attracted others with claims that are beyond avarice.

BP says many of the claims are clearly bogus, but the court-appointed settlement administrator, relying on a “flawed interpretation” of the settlement agreement, is throwing the company’s cash to everyone with a scoop and a shopping bag.

U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier says he doesn’t want to get bogged down by a “claim-by-claim analysis” of whether each demand for loot can be traced to the spill, so he says yes to everybody. Judge Barbier, who was appointed to the court by President Clinton, says the rules that BP agreed to as “more than fair” can’t be changed in the middle of the game, so there’s no need for certain claimants to prove that the blow-out caused their loss. (Work is so fatiguing.) “Some businesses,” Judge Barbier said, “either because of where they are located or the nature of the business, are entitled to a causation presumption under the Settlement, and therefore need not provide any evidence of causation.”

Time is money, of course. Fishermen who couldn’t fish and innkeepers who had no tourists to keep shouldn’t have to wait forever to be paid what BP rightly owes them. Justice delayed is justice denied. But the law, as Mr. Bumble reminded us in Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” can be “a ass — a idiot,” and sometimes judges set out to prove it.

BP had run full-page newspaper ads earlier this month complaining that it had had to pay an “adult escort service” $173,000 through the Gulf Settlement Program. The “escort” enterprise, to support a claim for lost income in the years after the oil spill in 2010, had submitted tax returns from 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 to demonstrate what it might have earned. “All of the tax returns were dated 2012 and were unsigned,” BP noted. “The claimant also provided accounting statements missing the dates on which they were created.”

One lawyer in Florida solicited clients by inviting them to the feeding frenzy. “The craziest thing about the settlement is that you can be compensated for losses that are unrelated to the spill,” he told them. He was right, too. About $3.8 billion has been paid to 40,000 spill claimants so far, according to the most recent court filing.

Perhaps BP’s lawyers shouldn’t have signed a settlement that leaves them open to outlandish claims; perhaps they thought the courts would be reasonable and fair. Giving away money is easy when it’s not your own, as almost any congressman — and some federal judges — would tell you. Jackpot justice is at its most unsavory when undeserving claimants and legal-shark tort lawyers, sniffing oil in the water (it’s better than blood), can get rich quick. Bonnie and Clyde never had it this good.