Oil spill hearings focus on who was in charge after the blast

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 10:03 PM

METAIRIE, LA. - The BP oil spill cleanup is winding down, but the lawyers are just warming up. The gusher of litigation might not be capped for years.

At a Holiday Inn near the freeway here, a conference room was packed Tuesday with some big lumber from the legal profession. The lawyers represented oil giant BP, Transocean, Halliburton, Cameron, Anadarko, Weatherford, Dril-Quip, M-I Swaco, Sperry Sun and some of the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

This is the latest set of hearings by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which have been investigating the April 20 blowout that killed 11 people. The marine board will write a report and make recommendations for improved safety and regulations. For the lawyers, this is all material for the trials and lawsuits yet to come.

More than 300 lawsuits reportedly have been filed against BP, but that's only one part of the legal story. The companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon disaster are likely to sue one another, though so far they've mostly battled via news releases and stinging quotes from the corporate communications departments. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation.

"There are the injury-death cases; there's the stockholder cases; there's the environmental cases; there's the economic loss cases; and all the government cases," said lawyer Ronnie Penton, who has multiple clients who have filed suit against BP and who specializes in injury-death litigation.

"It could go on for 10 years," said Kyle Schonekas, attorney for the sunken rig's captain, Curt Kuchta of Transocean.

Schonekas provided the day's highlight-reel performance. The co-chairman of the investigative panel, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, had been asking many witnesses about Kuchta's actions immediately after the explosion, focusing on whether Kuchta was fully in command of the situation. Finally, Schonekas leapt to his feet and loudly declared, "This is nothing more than an effort, continually by Captain Nguyen, to character assassinate my client."

He then made a motion to have Nguyen recuse himself because of his "bias."

Nguyen did not respond. The board member running the proceeding, retired federal judge Wayne Andersen, quickly denied the motion.

There were other squalls in the windowless Magnolia Room on this unseasonably cool day in New Orleans. At one point in the morning, Nguyen chided Transocean, the rig's owner, for what he said was a persistent unwillingness to produce witnesses and documents. Nguyen directed a Coast Guard aide to place five enlarged documents on an easel at the front of the room. Nguyen said the documents indicated that senior Transocean executives knew that some company rigs had questionable safety records.

"To me, Transocean has not been responsive to the requests of this board," Nguyen said.

Transocean attorneys took turns popping up from their seats and firing back.

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