May 25, 2013
BP execs go on trial for biggest US oil spill
People, businesses and governments harmed in the biggest oil spill in US history got their day in court today, blaming BP executives for the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 rig workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
"The primary fault for this disaster lies with BP," Assistant US Attorney Mike Underhill said at the start of the trial over legal culpability for the disaster that killed 11 oil workers and sent more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. The trial at the federal district court in New Orleans will be overseen by Judge Carl Barbier with no jury.
Lawyers for other plaintiffs also slammed executives for BP Plc, as did an attorney for one of BP's codefendants. BP lawyers were scheduled to speak later in the afternoon, and must show that the company's mistakes do not meet the legal definition of gross negligence required for the highest amount of damages. BP has already spent or committed $37 billion on cleanup, restoration, payouts, settlements and fines.
Potential liabilities stretch into the tens of billions of dollars if Barbier determines BP or the other defendants were grossly negligent. Oil came ashore from Texas to Florida, threatening livelihoods and state economies dependent on seafood and tourism, so the list of plaintiffs is long.
Most observers still expect the case to be settled before the trial results in a verdict.
Underhill said that less than an hour before BP's long-troublesome Macondo well ruptured and caused an explosion, BP's top well site leader on the rig called an engineer in Houston to discuss a critical pressure test that indicated problems.
Company officials did not stop the operation and "11 souls had 47 minutes to live the rest of their lives," Underhill said in his opening arguments after a weekend of talks produced no last-minute settlement.
Underhill said the accident could have been avoided if onshore engineer Mark Hafle and well site leader Don Vidrine on the rig had done their jobs. Vidrine also faces criminal charges in the disaster, as does Robert Kaluza, the other highest-ranking supervisor aboard the rig before the disaster.
Jim Roy, an attorney for other plaintiffs suing well owner BP Plc, rig owner Transocean Ltd, cement services provider Halliburton Co and others, said BP executives at the highest level felt pressure to push output to the limit.
"Production over protection. Profits over safety," said Roy, who represents plaintiffs who did not take part in an $8.5 billion settlement BP struck last year.
Roy also said Transocean opened the door to disaster with poor staff training and poor maintenance of seabed equipment, while Halliburton made substandard cement to plug the well.
Transocean's lawyer Brad Brian also came out swinging against BP, saying rig workers trusted the oil company and died betrayed.
Brian said the inaction following the phone call showed Hafle and Vidrine did what they and others at BP had been doing for two months in the face of a risky well: "They did nothing."
He said Hafle spoke for eight minutes with Vidrine, discussed drillpipe pressure and improper alignment of a critical hose, hung up, "and then stayed safely onshore."