Settlement talks were underway over the weekend. The Wall Street Journal reported that federal and state officials were preparing a $16 billion settlement offer to BP, but that figure is far higher than any figure BP has discussed. Without a deal, opening arguments will begin Monday before Judge Carl J. Barbier, himself a former plaintiffs lawyer, who will try the case under maritime law and therefore without a jury.
“The gulf oil spill case, if it does not settle before Monday, will be unlike any other trial brought under the environmental laws,” said David Uhlmann, professor of environmental law at the University of Michigan. “The Justice Department has never tried an environmental case that involved the human tragedy, economic losses and ecological disaster that occurred during the gulf oil spill.”
Ever since the spill, BP has strived to “make things right,” as its ads say, shelling out huge sums to individuals and businesses and in a criminal settlement with the Justice Department in a bid to put the disaster behind it and get on with the business of being an oil company.
But now BP says it is ready to combat charges that it was guilty of gross negligence in the April 20, 2010, blowout on its Macondo exploration well, which set the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on fire, killing 11 people and spilling millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The London-based oil giant says that a series of mistakes by its own employees and those working for the drill rig’s owner, Transocean, and oil-field services firm Halliburton led to the disaster. Those companies are also defendants in the trial.
An army of private plaintiffs, the Justice Department, state attorneys general and Transocean and Halliburton will all argue that BP is to blame. Issues of damages and penalties will be dealt with later in separate proceedings.
“In a lot of cases it’s the plaintiffs’ versus the defendant’s version. But here, BP’s defense is really to try to hide behind Transocean and Halliburton,” said Steven Herman, one of the lead plaintiffs lawyers and a veteran of tobacco and Chinese drywall litigation. “We think they were all grossly negligent and wanton and reckless, and at the end of the day we don’t think any of them could hide behind the others.”