Civil Trial Against BP Seeks To Place Blame For Gulf Oil Spill

The long-awaited BP trial opened Monday in New Orleans. The oil giant is in court to determine how much it should pay because of the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Audie Cornish talks to Jeff Brady.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Today in New Orleans, a civil trial began in the case of the BP explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster happened almost three years ago, April 2010. Millions of barrels of oil poured into the Gulf, 11 workers were killed. BP has already pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Now, billions of dollars are at stake in these civil proceedings.

NPR's Jeff Brady was in the courtroom today and he joins us now. And, Jeff, to start, opening statements, what did you hear?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Well, it was just opening statements and just kind of highlighting what attorneys plan to argue in this case. More than six hours of opening statements from eight different parties, starting with lawyers for the plaintiffs. That's the federal government, the five Gulf Coast states affected and a group representing thousands of individual plaintiffs. Their message was fairly uniform, that BP and its contractors put profit before safety and the environment.

They planned to argue that managers knew the crew on the Deepwater Horizon didn't have enough training, that equipment was faulty and that means the disaster could have been prevented. Now, the defense has countered those arguments, but then just as we've heard kind of all along leading up to this trial, they pointed fingers at each other.

The owner of the rig, Transocean, essentially said that this was BP's fault. It was the operator of the well. That means that BP was in charge and that Transocean employees were victims here, too. The lawyer for Halliburton, which did the cement job for the well, said it was BP and Transocean's fault for losing control of the well. BP's lawyer said rather than pointing fingers in the trial, they'll be pointing to facts. So, nice little one-liner there. The company has argued all along that this was a series of mistakes that lead to the disaster that killed 11 crewmen and that massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

CORNISH: And, Jeff, I want you to tell us a little more about settlement, because there had been a lot of talk about a settlement but I guess that didn't happen?

BRADY: No. It didn't happen. They've been negotiating over the past year. BP has been talking with the Department of Justice and the states affected. And we've heard that those negotiations continued through last night. I'm surprised that it wasn't settled today. I can't imagine the BP executives want all these events rehashed in the media again.

But they maintain the company was not grossly negligent, and that's the big question here. They say they're ready to prove that. You know, that could be the company's strategy for settlement negotiations. You know, make it seem like they have a good case and get the plaintiffs to agree to a smaller settlement. We don't know what their strategy is. Maybe the trial will play out and the judge will decide the case, or maybe this will be settled.

CORNISH: And as we mentioned, BP already pleaded guilty to criminal charges. It's paying $4.5 billion in fines. So explain to us how this case is different from that one.

BRADY: Well, this is about what happened leading up to that explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon and who's responsible for it. Allocating liability. That's a term we hear a lot in this phase of the case. And, boy, you know, there is a lot of money at stake here. Under the Clean Water Act, up to $17.5 billion in fines that BP could be subject to. That's a little lower than originally thought, actually, because both sides agreed to exclude about 810,000 barrels of oil that was collected at the blowout site. But we're still talking tens of billions of dollars.

CORNISH: And a few seconds left here, Jeff. What happens next? Is this trial going to go on for a long time?

BRADY: You know, it's always hard to predict how long these trials are going to go on for. But the folks who are involved here, the lawyers predict about three months. So we could be well into May here before this trial wraps up.

CORNISH: NPR's Jeff Brady, joining us from New Orleans. Jeff, thank you.

BRADY: Thank you, Audie.

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