The long-awaited trial over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 began in New Orleans yesterday.
The disaster was the biggest US offshore oil spill ever, with governments, businesses and individuals blaming BP Plc mostly for the 2010 disaster that killed 11 rig workers and spilled four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
"Not only was it within BP's power to prevent the tragedy, it was its responsibility," Mike Underhill, a US Justice Department trial attorney, said at the trial over legal culpability for the blowout and spill.
The trial is being held with no jury before Judge Carl Barbier at federal court in New Orleans.
Lawyers for other plaintiffs also slammed BP executives, as did attorneys for two of the well owner's co-defendants, rig owner Transocean Ltd and cement services provider Halliburton Co. BP lawyer Mike Brock said the blame was shared by all three companies.
BP must show that its mistakes do not meet the legal definition of gross negligence required for the highest amount of damages. BP has already spent or committed $37bn on cleanup, restoration, payouts, settlements and fines.
Beyond that, liabilities could stretch into the tens of billions of dollars if Barbier determines BP or the other defendants were grossly negligent. Oil came ashore from Texas to Florida, threatening livelihoods and state economies dependent on seafood and tourism, so the list of plaintiffs is long.
Most observers expect the case to be settled before the trial results in a verdict.
Underhill said that less than an hour before BP's long-troublesome Macondo well ruptured and caused an explosion, BP's top well site leader on the rig called an engineer in Houston to discuss a critical pressure test that indicated problems.
Company officials did not stop the operation and "11 souls had 47 minutes to live the rest of their lives", Underhill said.
Underhill said the accident could have been avoided if onshore engineer Mark Hafle and well site leader Don Vidrine on the rig had done their jobs. Vidrine faces separate criminal charges in the disaster, as does Robert Kaluza, the other highest-ranking supervisor aboard the rig before the disaster.
Jim Roy, an attorney for other plaintiffs suing BP, Transocean, Halliburton and others, said BP executives at the highest level felt pressure to push output to the limit.
"Production over protection. Profits over safety," said Roy, who represents plaintiffs who did not take part in an $8.5bn settlement BP struck last year.
Roy also said Transocean opened the door to disaster with poor staff training and poor maintenance of seabed equipment, while Halliburton made substandard cement to plug the well.
Transocean's lawyer, Brad Brian, came out swinging against BP, saying rig workers trusted the company and died betrayed.
Brian noted BP employees had referred to Macondo as a "well from Hell" in emails, and the inaction following Vidrine and Hafle's 8-minute phone call showed they did what BP had done for two months in the face of a risky well: "They did nothing."
Halliburton's lawyer, Don Godwin, made similar arguments about BP but also said Transocean's rig crew should have shut in the well at the first sign of trouble. "Now is when they want to pass the buck and blame my client for their misdeeds," he said.
And David Beck, the lawyer for Cameron International, maker of the blowout preventer atop the well, said the structure works in tandem with other efforts to prevent disaster.
"It's a blowout preventer. It is not a blowout stopper," Beck said.
In BP's opening statement, Brock said the misinterpretation of the pressure test was made along with Transocean. "It was a mistake made by several men with two companies," Brock said. "They should not have accepted it, but it was a mistake."