Federal Judge Rules BP Primary Culprit In Gulf Oil Spill

BP says it will appeal the ruling that the company's reckless conduct and gross negligence caused the largest U.S. offshore oil spill. The ruling exposes BP to potentially billions more in penalties.

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The oil giant BP said the legal battle over its 2010 oil spill isn't over. The company plans to appeal the federal judge's ruling yesterday, which said BP's reckless conduct and gross negligence caused the largest offshore oil disaster in U.S. history. BP's stock took a hit after the decision, which exposes the oil company to potentially billions more in financial penalties for polluting the Gulf of Mexico. This decision was welcomed news along the Gulf Coast, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier says BP's profit-driven decisions and willful misconduct are to blame for the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. Eleven rig workers were killed and oil spewed into the Gulf for three months, fouling beaches and wetlands from Texas to Florida. Oil spill victims have been awaiting this accounting of what went wrong and who was at fault.

KEITH JONES: I'm Keith Jones. I'm a lawyer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I lost my son Gordon (ph) on the Deepwater Horizon.

ELLIOTT: Jones says Barbier's ruling puts BP's reckless behavior on record for the world to see.

JONES: His conclusions are that BP - for money - killed my son and 10 other good men and caused irreparable damage both to the people on the rig and people on shore.

ELLIOTT: Jones says now BP should have to pay for sacrificing safety for profit. And that's what the ruling sets out. Law professor Montre Carodine of the University of Alabama has been following the litigation. She says it's significant that Barbier found gross negligence.

MONTRE CARODINE: It's close to acting intentionally, and it's certainly acting recklessly. You knew something bad could happen, but you acted anyway. And that's pretty serious under the law, and the penalties are pretty harsh under the law when you act that way.

ELLIOTT: Under the Clean Water Act, that means BP faces fines nearly quadruple those for simple negligence - up to $18 billion in civil penalties.

CARODINE: This could be a signal from Judge Barbier that he's willing to impose the absolute maximum penalty on BP. If you look at the language that's used in that opinion, that 152-page opinion, he doesn't think a lot of BP and their actions.

ELLIOTT: BP calls Barbier's conclusions erroneous and says it will immediately appeal. In a statement, the company said proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case. While BP fights, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says Gulf states stand ready to fight as well. He says BP should face the stiffest of penalties. And under a new law, the bulk of the money will go back to the coast.

LUTHER STRANGE: It's a fantastic win for the environment of the Gulf Coast because that money will go to remediating environmental damage and to protecting the environment for future generations. And that's a significant amount of money.

ELLIOTT: Money that Gulf Coast interests are eagerly anticipating. Sal Sunseri sits at a restaurant in uptown New Orleans where they're serving summer oysters.

SAL SUNSERI: This time of the year, they're kind of skinny. They have a little salt to them.

ELLIOTT: Problem is there aren't as many oysters harvested from the Gulf as there should be, he says. Sunseri is co-owner of P&J Oyster Company, a family operation in business since 1876. The company has weathered hurricanes, wars and droughts, Sunseri says, but nothing compared to the BP oil disaster.

SUNSERI: I want to make sure that oyster people are taken care of, the fisheries are taken care of and that the perception of Louisiana becomes number one once again. We want to keep this tradition going. We're the oldest oyster company in America. You can't destroy that. You can't destroy that tradition.

ELLIOTT: Sunseri is pleased with the federal court's ruling against BP but says the most important measure will be repairing the damage that's done. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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