Updated: June 30, 6:33 p.m.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and trade groups representing the cruise ship industry are pressing lawmakers to oppose a bill that would make it easier for families of those who die at sea to sue for damages.
The House on Wednesday is scheduled to begin debate on the measure, one of many pieces of legislation proposed in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A vote is expected Thursday.
The legislation amends laws, including one that dates back to the 19th century, that limit the ability of families to collect non-economic damages when victims die in offshore incidents. It has been embraced by a number of the families of the 11 men who died when BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April.
But business groups and companies that operate ships have been concerned that new liability provisions would open them up to more and costly lawsuits.
In a letter to members of the Florida House delegation, the Cruise Lines International Association said that while it has no objection to addressing the rights of victims of the Gulf oil spill, it was concerned the bill went too far.
The letter, sent Tuesday, said the bill "would have sweeping consequences because the Act applies to all deaths arising beyond U.S. waters, including incidents involving foreign nationals."
"Furthermore, non pecuniary damage awards, which are expanded under the bill, are unpredictable," said the letter, signed by Terry Dale, president of the cruise association, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The cruise lines have had a major presence in Washington, D.C., with their association spending $6.8 million since 2007, including $695,000 in the first quarter of this year. The CLIA's members include Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce letter, also sent Tuesday, said that a number of provisions that it objected to had been dropped. Nevertheless, it continued to oppose the legislation, in part because it could result in thousands of claims that are not related to the oil spill, including many maritime-related asbestos cases.
"Such an expansion of liability will only serve to encourage plaintiff's attorneys to go after new revenue streams and increase our nation's litigation burden," wrote Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the chamber and Lisa Rickard, president of the chamber's Institute for Legal Reform. A chamber spokesman confirmed the letter had been sent to Members of Congress.
Both letters were distributed by the American Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers. AAJ has been pushing for the change in the maritime liability laws and so is at odds with the chamber and the cruise ship association.
"When the chamber and cruise lines aren't foreign flagging their vessels to skirt U.S. regulations and taxes or exploiting cheap overseas labor, apparently they lobby Gulf Coasters that simply want to hold BP and other corporations accountable for causing the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history," said a statement sent by AAJ spokesman Ray De Lorenzi.
The legislation, which is called the Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act, or SPILL Act, has been endorsed by a number of victims' rights groups, including the International Cruise Victims Association.
The bill amends three laws, the Death on the High Seas Act of 1920, the Jones Act of 1920 and the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851.
Family members of those killed on the BP rig have been on Capitol Hill lobbying for the changes in liability law. De Lorenzi said that Keith Jones, a Baton Rouge, La., trial lawyer and the father of Gordon Jones, who died on the rig, is scheduled to be in the House Gallery on Wednesday if the vote proceeds. Natalie Roshto, the wife of Shane Roshto, who was also killed, is scheduled to be in the House chamber. Roshto testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. That panel is considering a similar liability measure to the House bill.
Congress is considering other bills stemming from the BP spill, including a measure approved Wednesday by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that would lift the $75 million cap on damages related to oil spills. That cap was part of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also approved a measure Wednesday that would increase financial security and safety requirements for oil rigs as well as order a reorganization of the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling.