04/20/2011 11:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2011

April 20, 2011, Is the Gulf Oil Spill Deadline for Claims Against Transocean

The one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and disastrous oil gusher that followed isn't just a day to remember the 11 brave workers who were killed and fume about all that's gone wrong in the Gulf ever since. This day actually carries very real legal significance for residents in the Gulf region who are suing BP, Halliburton and Transocean and hoping to hold them accountable for the tremendous damage these companies caused.

For anyone thinking about joining the federal lawsuit against them, April 20, 2011, is the deadline for including claims against Transocean, the rig owner. (Luckily, anyone can join the lawsuit now by filing out this easy 3-page form, which can be done without an attorney.)

Joining the lawsuit does not mean stopping efforts to pursue claims with BP's Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF). But because of the type of misconduct by the companies that caused the spill, there is a possibility that the litigation might find these companies liable for far more than $20 billion, the amount BP set aside to pay claims, only a fraction of which has been distributed to families and businesses so far.

But why the special rule for Transocean? Many questions are answered here or here, but basically, Transocean has asked the judge to apply a 159-year-old law to cap its liability at $27 million -- essentially the costs of the sunken rig. This 159-year-old-law is apparently the same law that the Titanic's owners used to justify their tiny payouts to survivors and estates of those killed, after fighting families for years.

So the judge in the federal case has ordered a February 2012 trial to sort all this out, and well as to decide some critical liability issues, such as whether these was "gross fault" by the companies in causing the explosion, which could result in punitive damages. People who do not file by April 20, 2011 will not be allowed to participate in that trial.

It should be noted that families who join the lawsuit can still pursue claims with the BP's GCCF, as long as they don't sign their rights away. In other words, anyone accepting a "Final Payment" from BP's GCCF is being asked to sign a "Final Release and Covenant Not to Sue," which is a legal document that ends all rights to sue any of these companies even if losses turn out much greater. For a lot of people, the best solution right now may be filing an "Interim Payment" claim with the GCCF and joining the federal lawsuit. This involves filling out 2 forms: (1) a 15-page Claim form with the BP's GCCF, available at the GCCF website and (2) the 3-page Short Form available at the Federal Court's website. Claimants can always go back for additional interim payments, at quarterly intervals. But again, April 20, 2011 is the last day to join the lawsuit, in order to preserve all rights against all the companies responsible for this disaster.

So far, there has been widespread dissatisfaction in the Gulf region with the performance BP's GCCF. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's criticisms are indicative:

Hood said the facility is not processing claims fast enough, putting businesses and individuals in dire financial straits. That, in turn, makes them more willing to sign away their rights to sue in exchange for a relatively small payment, he contends. Hood asked federal District Judge Carl Barbier to order a full audit of the claims operation and force it to conform to federal laws.

We hope that happens. In the meantime, residents and businesses in the Gulf region should be careful not to sign away their legal rights if they hope to participate in the lawsuit, and they should join the lawsuit by April 20, 2011, to make sure all of their rights are preserved.

Here's the Public Service Announcement from the Alabama Governor and Attorney General: