BP goes on trial for Gulf oil spill disaster

21:38, Feb 25 2013
Help written on beach
OIL SPILL: The word Help is written in the sand on the beach at Gulf Shores, Alabama as workers battle to stop thousands of gallons of oil from a spill from hitting beaches.
Gulf oil spill
OIL SPILL: Workers gather stormwater runoff and decayed organic matter on the beach in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Gulf oil spill
GULF OIL SLICK: The crew of a Basler BT-67 fixed wing aircraft release oil dispersant over an oil discharge from the mobile offshore drilling unit, Deepwater Horizon, off the shore of Louisiana.
Gulf oil spill
OIL SLICK: A band of oil from the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana floats in the water near Freemason Island.
Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill
An oil soaked bird struggles against the side of the HOS an Iron Horse supply vessel at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Oil spill
OIL SPILL: Oil is seen on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico in an aerial view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Mobile, Alabama.
Oil from the Gulf
OIL SLICK: A man holds a plastic bag with oil from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill south of Freemason Island, Louisiana.
Protesters
OIL SPILL: Demonstrators hold placards during a rally in New Orleans to demand the cleaning of coasts as oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico.
Protective wall
OIL SPILL: A wall constructed to protect the northern shore of Dauphin Island, from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is shown in this aerial photograph.
Oil in waves
OIL SLICK: Thick black waves of oil and brown whitecaps are seen off the side of the supply vessel Joe Griffin at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill containment efforts.
Oil-stained bird
OIL STAINED: A cattle egret stained by oil rests on the deck of the supply vessel Joe Griffin, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.
Oil
Greenpeace senior campaigner Lindsey Allen walks through a patch of oil from the Deepwater Horizon on the breakwater in the mouth of the Mississippi River.
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Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 15 miles northwest of site of the BP oil spill.
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Dispersed oil floats on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico waters close to the site of the BP oil spill.
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Oil drips from the rubber gloves of Greenpeace Marine Biologist Paul Horsman.
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Gas from the damaged Deepwater Horizon wellhead is burned by the drillship Discoverer Enterprise.
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Greenpeace marine biologist Paul Horsman surveys oil pooled between reeds and brush.
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Veterinarians working for US Fish and Wildlife Services bathe a brown pelican at Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
Oil spill
OIL SPILL: A worker shovels oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon.
Oil spill
GULF OIL SPILL: Oil fouls the water near nesting pelicans on an island in Barataria Bay just off the the coast of Louisiana.
Pelican covered in oil
PELICAN COVERED IN OIL: An oiled bird on an island in Barataria Bay just off the the coast of Louisiana.
Oil spill
CONTAMINATION: CNN reporter Anderson Cooper lays down on the bow of an air boat to take a picture as Governor Bobby Jindal, right, removes a fishing net from the oil contaminated water in Pass A Loutre near Venice, Louisiana.
Oil spill
OIL SLICK: Workers clean up oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Pass a Loutre, Louisiana.
Oil spill in perspective
From a www.beowulfe.com program using Google maps to provide local perspective on the impact of the Gulf oil spill.
BP oil spill
A Nasa satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico shows the extent of the oil released from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
BP oil spill
BP CEO Hayward takes a first hand look at the recovery operations aboard the Discover Enterprise drill ship in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP oil spill
US President Obama walks along the Louisiana coastline while touring damage caused by oil spill.
Oiled pelican
SPILL VICTIM: A brown pelican covered in oil sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast.
Oiled bird
OILED: A bird is mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast.
Pelican
GULF PELICAN: A brown pelican is seen on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon has affected wildlife throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil bird
A Pelican sits on the beach covered in oil at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast.
Pelicans
SPILL VICTIMS: Brown Pelicans, covered in oil from BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, huddle together in a cage at the International Bird Rescue Research Centre in Buras, Louisiana.
Pelican sits in oil
OIL VICTIM: An exhausted oil-covered brown pelican sits in a pool of oil along Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery, 4.8km northeast of Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Gulf oil spill
UNDERWATER VANTAGE: patches of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill are seen from underwater.
Gulf spill
UNDERWATER OIL: Patches of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill are seen from an underwater vantage.
Gulf spill
OIL SPILL: Patches of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill are seen from an underwater vantage.
Journalist Rich Matthews
UNDER THE SEA: AP journalist Rich Matthews takes a closer look at oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil
OIL EVERYWHERE: Rich Matthews takes a closer look at oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
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EFFECTS: Marine reef ecologist Scott Porter holds barnacle samples he removed from an oil rig in waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Porter plans to determine the effect of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
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Marine reef ecologist Scott Porter works to remove oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill off his hands.
Oil in bottles
GULF SPILL: Oil-tainted water from the Gulf of Mexico sits in jars placed before a group of business people and officials called Gulf Voices as they speak of their plight during a visit to Capitol Hill in Washington.
Oil spill
GULF SPILL: Crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill washes ashore in Orange Beach, Alabama.
Oil spill
GULF SPILL: Gas and oil continue to leak at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico, in this image captured from a BP live video feed.
Gulf oil spill
OIL SPILL: The Taiwanese skimmer dubbed "A Whale", left, conducts a test of its oil skimming capabilities in the Gulf of Mexico as part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response.
Young heron
YOUNG HERON: Young herons impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are seen at the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.
BP STICKS AT IT: Work continues at the site of the BP oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP STICKS AT IT: Work continues at the site of the BP oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
oiled heron
OIL VICTIM: A seriously oiled tri-coloured heron is spotted on Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle, Louisiana.

The long-awaited trial of BP for the biggest US offshore oil spill has begun, with governments, businesses and individuals blaming the company for the 2010 disaster that killed 11 rig workers and spilled four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

"The primary fault for this disaster lies with BP," Assistant US Attorney Mike Underhill said at the start of the trial over legal culpability for the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The trial at the federal district court in New Orleans will be overseen by Judge Carl Barbier with no jury.

Lawyers for other plaintiffs also slammed executives for BP, as did attorneys for two of BP's main co-defendants. BP's lawyer was due to respond later. 

BP must show its mistakes do not meet the legal definition of gross negligence required for the highest amount of damages.

BP oil spill
OIL DISASTER: Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in 2010.

BP has already spent or committed US$37 billion on cleanup, payouts, settlements and fines.

Beyond that, potential liabilities 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 is long.

Most observers still 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 indicated problems.

Company officials did not stop the operation and "11 souls had 47 minutes to live the rest of their lives," Underhill said in his opening arguments after a weekend of talks produced no last-minute settlement.

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 also faces criminal charges in the disaster, as does Robert Kaluza, the other highest-ranking supervisor aboard the rig before the disaster.

Jim Roy, an attorney for other plaintiffs suing well owner BP, rig owner Transocean, cement services provider Halliburton Co 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 US$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, also came out swinging against BP, saying rig workers trusted the oil company and died betrayed.

Brian said the inaction following the phone call showed Hafle and Vidrine did what they and others at BP had been doing for two months in the face of a risky well: "They did nothing."

He said Hafle spoke for eight minutes with Vidrine, discussed drill pipe pressure and improper alignment of a critical hose, hung up, "and then stayed safely onshore."

Brian noted they made these decisions despite the fact that BP employees called Macondo the "well from Hell" in emails.

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.

ASSESSING BLAME


Barbier, the judge overseeing the trial, has deep roots in the Gulf Coast. Born in New Orleans in 1944, he attended Southeastern Louisiana University and Loyola University New Orleans School of Law.

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BP oil spill
ENVIRONMENTAL ANGER: Activists protest in front of the Hale Boggs Federal Building on the first day of the BP trial in New Orleans.

He was a lawyer in private practice for many years in New Orleans before President Bill Clinton tapped him for the federal bench in 1998.

The judge, who has also handled several high-profile cases stemming from Hurricane Katrina, postponed the trial date by more than a month.

An army of media have descended on New Orleans to cover the trial, and the delay avoided a clash with the NFL Super Bowl in New Orleans on February 3 or the city's Mardi Gras festival on February 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 wilful misconduct."

"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 wilful disregard for human and environmental safety and is difficult to prove, experts say.

BP has consistently denied it was grossly negligent.

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said his state was suffering with more than 212 miles (341km) of coast still being polluted by oil "less than 30 miles 48km) from the door of this courthouse."

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 US$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 regulators.

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.

Reuters