A major decision regarding the first phase of the trial for the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was issued by a Federal District Court in New Orleans on September 4, 2014. The 153 page decision by Judge Carl Barbier found that BP, Halliburton and Transocean all contributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which resulted in 11 deaths and millions of gallons of oil discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. Significantly, the decision held that BP was “grossly negligent” and “reckless” in its actions and omissions leading up to the spill, which may result in fines potentially reaching $18 billion.
After the spill, a case brought against BP, Halliburton and Transoecean proceeded to trial. Prior to the trial’s commencement, many of the plaintiffs claiming wrongful death, personal injuries and economic losses settled their cases against BP for a total of $9.2 billion in March 2012. The remaining plaintiffs include the United States government, five Gulf of Mexico states and some private businesses. The trial was divided into three phases: the first phase focused on who was at fault and whether “gross negligence” played a role in the spill; the second phase, which was completed in October 2013, focused on the size of the spill and any efforts that were made to contain it; the third phase, which will begin in January 2015, will determine how much each defendant will pay in pollution fines.
The decision handed down last week pertained to only the first phase of the trial, and found that BP was 67% at fault, Transocean was 30% at fault, and Halliburton was 3% at fault for the loss of the well control, the ensuing explosion and fire, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, and the initiation of the release of oil from the well. The second phase of the trial, which Judge Barbier has not reached a decision for at this time, focused on the conduct or omissions relative to stopping the release of oil, and the amount of oil actually released. The quantification of the oil released is very important in determining the civil penalties under the Clean Water Act. The third phase of the trial has not yet occurred.
The Court’s found that BP was “grossly negligent,” and found that Transocean and Halliburton’s actions were negligent. Judge Barbier stated, “While ordinary negligence is a failure to exercise the degree of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised in the same circumstances, gross negligence is an extreme departure from the care required under the circumstances or a failure to exercise even slight care.” Under the Clean Water Act, the civil penalty is capped at $1,100 per barrel of oil discharged in the absence of “gross negligence or willful misconduct.” However, since the court found BP was “grossly negligent,” the maximum penalty amount can be nearly quadrupled the penalty normally allowed. The court seemed particularly swayed since the evidence indicated that BP put profits over safety.
The United States Attorney General Eric Holder heralded the Court’s decision and said, “The Court’s findings will ensure that the company is held fully accountable for its recklessness. The decision will serve as a strong deterrent to anyone tempted to sacrifice safety and the environment in the pursuit of profit.” Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who has led investigations into the spill, similarly approved of the decision and stated, “It was clear [from my investigations] that the company compromised safety for speed, and [the] ruling once again confirms that assessment.” See Bloomberg News.
BP, on the other hand, was disappointed in the Court’s decision. The company said it “strongly disagrees” with the decision and intends to file an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A BP statement said, “The law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case.”
Since there likely will be appeals in this case, and there are still trial court decisions pending for the second and third phases of the trial, it may be years before the final penalties in this case are assessed.
If you, or someone you know, has been injured due to environmental harms or disasters, contact the attorneys at Louis Grandelli, P.C.