A civil trial against British Petroleum (BP) and its partners in the deepwater oil drilling attempt that resulted in the largest spill in American history opened this week in a New Orleans federal courtroom.
The trial began on Feb. 25 just months after BP settled other claims out of court for about $24 billion and pleaded guilty to criminal charges that resulted in an order to pay $4 billion in penalties to the Department of Justice and $525 million in fines to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in November 2012 for their part in the disaster.
But the Justice Department is seeking much more in civil damages under the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations damages, contending that BP and its partners engaged in a "culture of corporate recklessness" that resulted in an environmental catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions.
If found guilty in the trial being heard without a jury by Judge Carl J. Barbier, the company could be forced to pay billions more for the damage they caused to the Gulf Coast of North America in 2010 after an explosion took 11 lives on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
The case began a day before a Maryland appeals court reversed a $1 billion punitive damages award against Exxon Mobil for a gasoline spill that fouled drinking water in Baltimore County in 2000.
The $1.5 billion jury verdict handed down in 2011 to 160 homeowners and businesses in Jacksonville, a Baltimore County community, was reversed Feb. 26 by the state appellate court, returning the case to the Baltimore County Circuit Court in Towson for a new trial.
Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil had argued that the award, handed down in 2011 to 160 homeowners and businesses as part of a $1.5 billion jury verdict, was excessive.
In the case against BP, however, in order to avoid the fines tied to the Clean Water Act, which range from $1,100 to $4,300 for each barrel of oil spilled between Apr. 20 and July 15, BP will have to prove that it did not engage in grossly negligent behavior regarding the incident.
According to government estimates, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude gushed into the Gulf over the three-month period.
“Gross negligence is a very high bar that BP believes cannot be met in this case,” said Rupert Bondy, group general counsel of BP in a statement.
“This was a tragic accident, resulting from multiple causes and involving multiple parties. We firmly believe we were not grossly negligent.”
The company has continuously disputed the actual amount of oil that for three months spewed freely into the Gulf Coast waters that supported livelihoods strongly tied to the health and integrity of a dynamic ecosystem.
Aside from the 11 counts of felony misconduct, the company also faced one felony charge of obstruction of Congress for allegedly lying about the flow rate of the oil when asked for an estimate.
The company still disputes the flow rate, saying that “the government’s public estimate of 4.9 million barrels of oil released is at least 20 per cent overstated.”
BP is not the sole defendant in the case that includes Transocean, the company that ran the rig pumping oil from the BP Macondo well, and Halliburton, a company handling subcontracting for the operation. Those two defendants are also joined by Cameron International, the company that supplied the blowout preventer, which was suppose to control situations like the one that began on Apr. 20, 2010, and M-I Swaco, a company that provides “drilling fluid systems engineered to improve drilling performance.”
In his opening arguments for the case, Jim Roy, attorney for the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee (PSC), told the judge that the oil spill is an ongoing issue for the families of the Gulf Coast.
“The disaster has damaged Louisiana's people, its economy, and its ecology. I think that's clear. But most importantly, this disaster continues in various forms, including continued pollution, higher unemployment, and the need for increased social service,” he said, adding that “over 212 miles of Louisiana coast” continue to suffer from the effects- “Barataria Bay and Breton Sound.”
“We continue to be adversely affected.”
Transcripts released by the court say that the trial is one that will be carried out in several phases, with the initial period begun this week expected to take three months.