A top BP PLC executive declined to be specific today when pressed at a congressional hearing to say what kind of claims the company will pay from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the liability questions surrounding the Gulf of Mexico spill, including the response of the companies involved and the damage limits written into federal law. Darryl Willis, BP’s vice president for resources, is representing the company at the hearing.

“We are going to pay all legitimate claims,” Willis said, repeating a company refrain that has drawn skepticism from lawmakers and from plaintiffs’ advocates, who have brought scores of class actions and other lawsuits against BP and other companies.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) pressed Willis repeatedly to define “legitimate.” He asked, for example, whether BP would compensate people who, hypothetically, might be injured by the chemical dispersant BP is using to reduce the impact of the oil spill.

“Is that a valid claim?” Nadler asked.

“They can file a claim, yes,” Willis said.

“I didn’t ask if they can file a claim,” Nadler shot back. “Is that a claim that you will pay?”

“Every claim will be evaluated,” Willis said.

“Can you answer yes or no, please?” Nadler asked.

Willis would not, as the exchange continued. “We’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to respond to this in an effective manner, and we realize we’re going to be judged based on our response,” he said.

William Lemmer, general counsel of Cameron International Corp., was also among the witnesses testifying. The company manufactured the blowout preventer, which failed to seal off the oil well a month ago. Lemmer said it’s premature to determine liability for the disaster.

“It appears to be far too early to draw factual conclusions about how this incident occurred,” he said. “Anything specific we might say in this proceeding would be speculative and perhaps misleading.”

That response and others from the industry didn’t satisfy Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), who highlighted the plight of fishermen and others who depend on the Gulf of Mexico. “Why is there this constant refrain that it’s too early to determine liability when we have a whole industry that’s being destroyed?” she said.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), former president of a petroleum company, was among several GOP lawmakers who said Congress should not jump to conclusions. “We don’t really know what has happened. There are few people who do,” he said.

The committee also heard from Keith Jones, a Baton Rouge, La., lawyer whose son, Gordon, died on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Gordon Jones, 28, worked for a BP contractor and is survived by a wife and two sons. Federal law allows the family to make a claim only for Gordon Jones’ future earnings, his father noted.

Keith Jones deplored that focus on money. “When Michelle tells her boys about their dad, she’s not going to show them a pay stub,” he said.



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