Monday marked the beginning of one the largest and most complex litigations in the country’s history. At stake are tens of billions of dollars in liability stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Heated remarks were exchanged by both sides with the prosecution presenting a theme of corporate greed and recklessness. Michael Underhill, an attorney for the US Department of Justice, attributed primary fault for the disaster to BP in opening statements adding, “the evidence will show BP put profits before people, profits before safety, and profits before the environment.”
The trial is being held by Judge Carl Barbier, a Clinton appointee, without a jury in the federal court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans. The trial itself has been broken up into phases. The first phase of the trial is scheduled to last months and will address the allocation of fault between the defendants and determine the degree of liability. The primary defendants are BP as the well owner, Transocean as the rig owner, and Halliburton as the cement services provider who was contracted to cement the well hole. Cameron International’s culpability will also be addressed as the manufacturer of the blowout preventer that failed to cut-off the flow of oil from the damaged well.
If during the trial Judge Barbier finds that the defendants’ actions amounted to a willful misconduct, BP could face fines as high as $17.6 billion under the Clean Water Act and the defendants may find themselves liable for punitive damages as well.
While some media outlets are reporting rumors of a possible settlement in the works, the trial is proceeding as scheduled. Phase two of the trial will begin in September and revolve around how much oil spilled into the Gulf, an issue difficult to quantify and contested by both sides. Phase three will be held in 2014 and cover damages.
Wesley Bowden is a former prosecutor and practicing civil litigator in Northwest Florida.