Billions Of Dollars At Stake In BP Oil Spill Trial

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The first phase of the trial for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is scheduled to begin on Feb. 27. Billions of dollars are at stake for BP, the other companies involved, and the states, companies and individuals harmed by the disaster. Negotiations between all parties are continuing and some observers believe the case could be settled before opening arguments even begin.

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Later this month, one of the biggest, most complex environmental trials in history is set to begin. At the center of the case is the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. When it exploded in April of 2010, 11 crewmen died and millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, families of the dead, as well as businesses hurt by the spill, have filed hundreds of lawsuits against companies linked to the rig, including BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, those suits have all been consolidated into one giant case and will soon head to court.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Among those watching this trial closely, the families of 11 men who died on the Deepwater Horizon.

KEITH JONES: My life is in two halves, honestly. I think of my life as my life before Gordon was killed and my life after Gordon was killed.

BRADY: Keith Jones says his son was a big, lovable man, six-foot-four and 260 pounds He had two children with his wife, Michelle. The youngest born three weeks after Gordon was killed. As the trial is set to begin, Keith Jones says he's preparing for what will be on TV.

JONES: I'll see that burning rig over and over. I've seen it hundreds of times now. And I can't see it without knowing that that's Gordon's grave.

BRADY: In addition to being Gordon's father, Keith Jones is one of the lawyers on the plaintiffs' committee in this trial. He wants a thorough retelling of what happened.

JONES: I think that there's an awful lot that the public doesn't know yet that they will soon know about the causes of the disaster and the terrible decisions that led to those causes.

BRADY: This promises to be a long, complex trial. Plaintiffs include Gulf states that saw their coastlines fouled and seafood businesses that complain sales still haven't returned to pre-spill levels. The trial will happen in three stages, each focused on a different element of the disaster.

Associate professor Montre Carodine at the University of Alabama law school says the first phase is designed to answer a basic question.

MONTRE CARODINE: Who's at fault? Is anybody at fault? Because sometimes, things happen and nobody is at fault. I doubt that's the case here. But who is at fault and - or who all is at fault I think is the better word. And then once you make that determination, how do we apportion blame.

BRADY: BP has sought to spread the blame and the costs widely among the companies that helped it drill the well. That includes the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, Transocean, and Halliburton, which poured cement for the well.

Here's BP CEO Bob Dudley during a conference call with investors last week.

BOB DUDLEY: We believe the evidence will affirm what every official investigation to date has found, that the incident resulted from many causes involving many parties.

BRADY: The other companies generally have argued that as the owner of the well, BP is responsible for all costs. And ultimately, BP clearly has the deepest pockets among the players. The company estimates this accident could cost it more than $40 billion. That includes about eight billion already paid to individuals, businesses and governments.

The oil giant also has tried to make the case publicly that it is living up to its responsibilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BP AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When BP made a commitment to the Gulf, we knew it would take time, but we were determined to see it through.

BRADY: Advertisements like this are showing up on televisions around the country

(SOUNDBITE OF A BP AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm glad to report our beaches and waters are open for everyone to enjoy.

BRADY: One key issue in the trial will be whether BP was grossly negligent. The answer is important because if a judge says yes, fines under the Federal Clean Water Act could increase from an estimated four-and-a-half billion dollars to more than 17 billion. BP says its preparing for trial, but the company also is open to a settlement.

David Pettit is a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He hopes any settlement will consider future damage from the oil spill.

DAVID PETTIT: Suppose, for example, it takes years to find out that the sperm whale population in the Gulf has plummeted due to the effects of the oil spill. You'd want to have BP to be on the hook, so to speak, for that.

BRADY: Many people watching developments closely predict there will be a settlement. If not before the trial is scheduled to start on February 27th, then soon after.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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