US court begins first phase of BP oil spill trial

Deepwater Horizon.

New Statesman
Activists hold signs during a protest in New Orleans yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

The New Orleans court in the US has initiated first phase of trial over the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill accident that leaked up to 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 people in 2010.

The US government is seeking the highest possible penalties and damages for wilful misconduct or gross negligence of BP that caused the accident.

BP, however, rejected the allegation citing that the disaster had involved multiple causes and multiple companies.

Michael Underhill, lead prosecutor of the US Department of Justice, said that even if any individual action by BP staff might not amount to wilful misconduct, the accumulation of actions that caused the disaster reached that standard.

“The evidence will show BP put profits before people, profits before safety, and profits before the environment,” Underhill added.

BP’s chief lawyer, Mike Brock, responded that wilful misconduct or gross negligence were high standards for the government to prove.

The department alleges that BP knew or should have known that its decisions would lead to an accident.

If the court finds wilful misconduct then it could fine BP up to $17.6bn under the Clean Water Act.

Lawyers for the US government, private sector plaintiffs and the states of Alabama and Louisiana, which have claimed more than $34bn, also argued that BP’s contractors Transocean and Halliburton acted with gross negligence.

Rejecting the allegations, Transocean said its staff had been working under the direction of BP, while Halliburton said there was a no problem with its cement that was used to seal the well.

Underhill focused on a critical test intended to show whether the well was safely sealed with cement.

Brock responded that BP’s acceptance of a mistake by its employees means that “this does not reflect gross negligence, want of care [or] intentional wilful conduct …. These people were trying to get it right; trying to do the right thing.”

Luther Strange, the attorney-general of Alabama, argued that coastal states affected by the spill were seeking damages from BP and the other firms involved.

The second phase of trial is planned in September 2013.