By Kristen Hays
NEW ORLEANS Feb 25 BP executives more focused
on cost-cutting and oil production than safety should be held
responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of
Mexico in 2010, the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a
lawyer told a courtroom on Monday as a long-awaited legal
showdown began in New Orleans.
Jim Roy, speaking for plaintiffs suing well owner BP Plc
, drilling rig owner Transocean Ltd, cement
services provider Halliburton Co and others, said BP
executives at the highest level felt pressure to push output to
"Production over protection. Profits over safety," Roy said.
Roy was the first of many lawyers scheduled to speak during
a day of opening statements in the non-jury trial before U.S.
District Judge Carl Barbier. The first phase of the trial
focuses on how much each company is to blame for the disaster
and the degree of negligence.
Most observers expect the case to be settled before it goes
to a verdict, although talks over the weekend failed to reach an
"BP is in a very tight bind. 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.
Lined up against the defendants are the U.S. Justice
Department, several Gulf Coast states, and plaintiffs
represented by Roy that did not take part in an $8.5 billion
settlement that BP struck last year.
The stakes are enormous, with potential liabilities
stretching into the tens of billions of dollars if Barbier
determines that BP or the others were grossly negligent.
Simple negligence involves mistakes. Gross negligence
involves reckless or willful disregard for human and
environmental safety and is a difficult standard to prove,
Gross negligence opens the door to punitive damages against
BP, Transocean and Halliburton - above potentially billions in
fines under the Clean Water Act.
The April 2010 explosion at the Macondo well about 50 miles
south of Louisiana killed 11 men, sank Transocean's Deepwater
Horizon drilling rig and unleashed more than 4 million barrels
of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil came ashore from Texas to Florida, threatening
livelihoods and state economies dependent on seafood and
BP has spent or committed $37 billion on cleanup,
restoration, payouts, settlements and fines. That includes a
record $4.5 billion in penalties, and a guilty plea to 14
criminal counts to resolve criminal charges from the Justice
Department and civil claims from the U.S. Securities and
The company has sold $38 billion in assets to help cover its
spill-related costs, including its older, smaller Gulf of Mexico
The second phase of the trial, slated for September, will
focus on the flow rate of the oil that spewed from the well. The
third phase in 2014 will consider damages.