For months, residents throughout the Gulf Coast have been waiting to see whether justice would prevail for BP’s horrific actions leading to one of the worst environmental disasters in human history. Finally, last month, they got their answer. Judge Barbier issued his Phase 1 order, and found the oil giant grossly negligent in causing the Deepwater Horizon rig to explode and ultimately sink into the Gulf of Mexico. In the order, Judge Barbier apportioned BP’s fault at 67 percent, Transocean at 30 percent and Halliburton at 3 percent.
Judge Barbier noted in his 153-page opinion that BP acted with “profit-driven decisions” that amounted to “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” under the Clean Water Act. “These instances of negligence, taken together, evidence an extreme deviation from the standard of care and a conscious disregard of known risks,” Judge Barbier wrote. With a gross negligence finding against the company, BP now faces federal Clean Water Act penalties that could total $18 billion. The trial with the federal government to decide the company’s liability under the Clean Water Act will occur early next year.
Notwithstanding BP’s gross negligent conduct, Judge Barbier acknowledged that BP could not be held liable for punitive damages under Fifth Circuit law. However, Judge Barbier wrote that other circuits’ laws could give rise to punitive damages. While the news on punitive damages could be problematic for claimants seeking compensation in Fifth Circuit courts, the State of Alabama’s case – which our firm is actively involved in – could benefit greatly from the order given the case originated in and will be tried based on Eleventh Circuit precedent. Punitive damages, therefore, will be allowed in cases in Alabama and Florida.
The fact that BP was found grossly negligent and responsible for the oil spill should come as no surprise to anyone that paid close attention to the trial in New Orleans. For weeks during the trial, expert and fact witness testimony revealed a host of incomprehensible actions and decisions by the company that put profits over human life. Predictably and in the face of the evidence, a defiant BP made it a point to publicly disagree with the order. But isn’t that what we have come to expect from BP? Time and time again, the company has whistled past its actions and ignored its obligations – almost hoping that it is too big or rich to be punished for its conduct.
Perhaps the company’s leadership believes the public will believe its multi-million dollar advertising campaign designed to control public opinion, or that Gulf residents will forget just how bad the company acted when actions mattered most. Fortunately, the public is not going to forget what BP did before, during and after the oil rig exploded. Even so, BP cannot let time pass without reminding all of us that the company simply cannot be trusted. Case in point: the company is still trying to torpedo its own settlement simply because the company does not want to pay claims pursuant to the terms it negotiated and agreed to.
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