Public will finally get its day in court against BP


There’s good and bad news out of New Orleans this week concerning the ongoing legal fight over BP’s gross negligence in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that killed 11 workers and spilled roughly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  The U.S. government’s long awaited, multi-billion-dollar civil case against the British-based oil giant is slated to come to trial in just a few more days.

So what’s the bad news? It’s that BP won what could be considered a small victory in a preliminary courtroom hearing today. But in a case this large and this complicated, a “minor victory” is actually worth billions of dollars. Here’s what happened:

British oil giant BP got a big win late Tuesday when the U.S. government agreed not to seek civil penalties against the company for more than 800,000 barrels of oil that were collected before entering the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 oil spill disaster.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier’s acceptance of a stipulation between BP and the government means the maximum penalty BP faces is about $17.6 billion, compared to a $21 billion maximum had the 800,000 barrels been included and should a court find that the spill resulted from gross negligence.

That’s too bad. If there’s anything that we’ve learned over the last three years, it’s not to take anything that BP says — especially about how much oil was spilled or not spilled, a matter that the company lied about literally from Day One — at face value. In fact, we’ve documented on this blog that oil continues to leak from at or near the Deepwater rig site to this day!

And the $3.4 billion in potential liability that was just shaved out of the case is not Monopoly money. With BP back to making epic profits from sky-high oil price’ and with the environmental, health, and other needs along the Gulf Coast increasing every day, every dollar that stays in the oil company’s pocket is a dollar lost for rebuilding a battered region.

But there’s also good news down here in Louisiana. With D-Day getting closer, it’s looking more and more likely that this case will not end in a settlement, and that it will be battled out in court:

The development came as BP launched an all-out public relations offensive in advance of a civil trial next week before Barbier, which eventually could result in the company having to pay billions of dollars more in connection with the oil spill.

The company issued a statement Tuesday saying it has been open to a settlement during protracted negotiations with the U.S. government, but the company has been unable to reach a deal on terms BP believes are reasonable. It seems to suggest that there won’t be a deal before the trial begins Monday.

“Faced with demands that are excessive and not based on reality or the merits of the case, we are going to trial,” said BP general counsel Rupert Bondy. “We have confidence in our case and in the legal team representing the company and defending our interests.”

Short of an unconditional surrender by BP, which probably isn’t going to happen, I applaud the likelihood that the case is coming to trial. Indeed, the more aggressive that the U.S. Justice Department has been in going after the oil company, the more that the general public has found out about its malfeasance. Indeed, it was a filing by government lawyers in this very case back in September that brought to public light information about deceased dolphins in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay and dying deep-sea corrals that are sickening fish in Gulf of Mexico — in addition to slamming BP’s “culture of corporate recklessness.”

Now any good lawyer knows that there’s a certain level of risk involved when you bring a civil case to trial. But I believe that the case against BP in this matter is so strong that the public will benefit from having the facts aired in open court. Remember, this is the company that has spent untold millions on its public relations campaign that everything is just hunky-dory down here in the Gulf. It will be refreshing to see the company addressing its long trail of negligence — and environmental harm — out in the open, before a watching news media, and trying to defend itself.

Yes, billions of dollars are at risk in this case. But the truth will be priceless.

Please read about the latest developments in the case from FuelFix at:

Check out my Jan. 26 post about ongoing leaks from the Macondo oil field:

Read my Sept. 4 blog post that broke the story of the Justice Department’s hard-hitting court filing against BP:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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