When It Comes To Oil Spill Damages, Perception Is Reality


    By Jeff Kottkamp


    Florida  Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office recently filed suit against BP to recover damages incurred by our state as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  At first blush it may seem that proving our state’s damages would be difficult.  After all, there was very little evidence of oil reaching the shores of the Sunshine State during the 87 days the oil leak went uncapped. 


    Three years ago I flew on a Coast Guard Casa 225 from Tallahassee to the source of the spill to get a first hand view of the problem.  Surprisingly, the water near the source of the leak was blue (this may have been the result of the dispersant being pumped in to the water to break up the oil).  The bulk of the oil appeared to be drifting West.  There was a small amount of oil sheen visible on the surface of the water more than 100 miles South of Pensacola.  As it turned out, our state was indeed fortunate not to have any significant evidence of oil damage on our beaches.


    However, even without physical damage to our shoreline that does not mean that our citizens—and our state—did not suffer damages as a result of the oil spill.  Two weeks after the oil spill was capped Kenneth Feinberg, who was appointed to oversee private claims related to the spill, publicly stated the “perception is compensable.”  Damages related to “perception” go to the core of the Attorney General’s suit.


    Interestingly, it was not BP—but rather the national media—that created a perception problem for Florida.  A classic example took place one morning on MSNBC.  Then Governor Charlie Crist was doing a live interview on Pensacola Beach to show the world that our beaches were unaffected by the oil spill.  However, during the interview MSNBC cut to video footage of a pelican covered in oil on a beach soaked with oil.  This footage was actually taken in Louisiana—but it was shown to millions of people while the Governor of Florida was being interviewed.


    This took place over and over again.  National television networks would mention Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida all in one breath—and show the worst possible video footage of the oil spill regardless of what state they were talking about.  This created the “perception” problem for the Sunshine State that led to thousands people cancelling their Florida vacations.  I wrote the President of each of the major networks asking them to discontinue the practice—but that request was ignored.


    While the exact amount of damages incurred by our state as a result of the oil spill will be difficult to calculate—there is no doubt that Florida’s economy (as well as our state budget)  was hit hard by the perception that our beaches were covered in oil.   Therefore, It is entirely appropriate for the Attorney General to try and recover those damages.


    Jeff Kottkamp served as Lt. Governor of Florida from 2007-2011 and currently practices law with the Messer Caparello firm in Tallahassee