Crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig
Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this April 2010 file
photo. REUTERS/US Coast Guard/Files/Handout
A long-awaited trial over the biggest US offshore oil
spill has begun, with governments, businesses and individuals
blaming BP Plc mostly for the 2010 disaster that killed 11 rig
workers and spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of
"Not only was it within BP's power to prevent the tragedy, it
was its responsibility," Assistant US Attorney Mike Underhill
said at the trial over legal culpability for the blowout and
The trial is being held with no jury before Judge Carl
Barbier at federal court in New Orleans.
Lawyers for other plaintiffs also slammed BP executives, as
did attorneys for two of the well owner's co-defendants, rig
owner Transocean Ltd and cement services provider Halliburton
Co. BP lawyer Mike Brock said the blame was shared by all
BP must show that its 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
Beyond that, liabilities could 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
Most observers 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
Company officials did not stop the operation and "11 souls
had 47 minutes to live the rest of their lives," Underhill
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 faces separate
criminal charges in the disaster, as does Robert Kaluza, the
other highest-ranking supervisor aboard the rig before the
Jim Roy, an attorney for other plaintiffs suing BP,
Transocean, Halliburton 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, came out swinging against
BP, saying rig workers trusted the company and died betrayed.
Brian noted BP employees had referred to Macondo as a "well
from Hell" in emails, and the inaction following Vidrine and
Hafle's 8-minute phone call showed they did what BP had done
for two months in the face of a risky well: "They did
Halliburton's lawyer, Don Godwin, made similar arguments
about BP but also said Transocean's rig crew should have shut
in the well at the first sign of trouble. "Now is when they
want to pass the buck and blame my client for their
misdeeds," he said.
In BP's opening statement, Brock said the misinterpretation
of the pressure test was made along with Transocean. "It was
a mistake made by several men with two companies," Brock
said. "They should not have accepted it, but it was a
Louisiana continues to suffer from the oil spill, state
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said on Monday, with hundreds
of miles of coastline still being polluted "less than 30
miles from the door of this courthouse."
Barbier, overseeing the trial, has deep Gulf Coast roots.
Born in New Orleans in 1944, he went to Southeastern
Louisiana University and Loyola University New Orleans School
of Law. He had a private practice for years in New Orleans
before President Bill Clinton tapped him for the federal
bench in 1998.
The judge, who handled several high-profile cases stemming
from Hurricane Katrina, had postponed the BP trial by more
than a month. An army of media have descended on New Orleans
to cover it, and the delay avoided a clash with the NFL Super
Bowl on Feb. 3 or the Mardi Gras festival on Feb. 12.
The fact that the case has not yet settled surprises many. "I
never thought that they intended to try this case and really
cannot afford to do so because the exposure is too
potentially catastrophic," said Blaine LeCesne, a professor
at Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans.
The trial's first phase focuses on how much each company is
to blame and the degree of negligence. Luther Strange,
Alabama's attorney general, said he would seek to show all
three companies had acted with "gross negligence and willful
"We will ask the court at the end of this trial to rule that
all three - BP, Transocean, and Halliburton - are liable for
punitive damages to the state of Alabama," Strange said.
Simple negligence involves mistakes. Gross negligence
involves reckless or willful disregard for human and
environmental safety and is difficult to prove, experts say.
BP has consistently denied it was grossly negligent.
Any punitive damages would come on top of billions in
potential fines under the Clean Water Act. The payout by BP
so far included a record $4.5 billion in penalties, and a
guilty plea to 14 criminal counts to resolve charges from the
Justice Department and civil claims from US securities
BP has sold assets to help cover its spill-related costs,
including its older, smaller Gulf of Mexico operations.
The second phase of the trial, expected to start in
September, will focus on the flow rate of the oil that spewed
from the well. The third phase in 2014 will consider damages.
The case is In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater
Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, No.
10-md-02179, in the US District Court, Eastern District of