Judge Shoots Down BP’s Request to Drop Gross Negligence Charge
As soon as plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill trial called their last witness, an attorney for BP asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to dismiss charges that the oil giant committed “gross negligence.” But the judge immediately denied the request, keeping the stakes high as the trial enters its fourth week.
Barbier invited BP’s attorneys to file a formal motion for dismissal, but followed up by warning, “Frankly, I’m not going to grant that motion.”
If BP is found guilty of gross negligence, the company will pay a nearly fourfold increase in fines under the Clean Water Act, approaching $18 billion. Gross negligence requires a reckless or willful disregard for human and environmental safety, but BP maintains that the accident happened despite a genuine commitment to safety.
Attorneys for another defendant, drilling fluid supplier M-I Swaco, made a similar motion for dismissal today, noting that none of the plaintiffs’ witnesses blamed their client for the accident. Cement contractor Halliburton and blowout preventer manufacturer Cameron also announced plans to file dismissal motions later this week. Barbier has not indicated how he will respond to those requests.
BP Withheld Info From Crew
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Transocean, the Swiss oil company that owned the Deepwater Horizon and trained its crew, called offshore drilling expert Calvin Barnhill as its first witness today. Through a minute-by-minute examination of the Transocean crew’s activity leading up to the blowout, Barnhill concluded that the crew “responded every time an event occurred.”
“We can debate whether that response was good, bad or otherwise,” Barnhill said.
Barnhill testified Transocean’s crew was trained to industry standards and that he found no evidence that any crew member intentionally misinterpreted the results of a negative pressure test at the Macondo well. The interpretation of that test, offered by a Transocean crew member and accepted by BP well site leaders, was called “physically impossible” in earlier expert testimony.
Barnhill said that the crew was forced to deal with the problematic well “without all the information,” such as the fact BP used fewer well pipe centralizers than was recommended by Halliburton.
Centralizers are designed to keep a pipe centered as a cement well is formed around it, resulting in a symmetrical well construction. Plaintiffs’ experts alleged that the pipe in the Macondo well was off-center, creating a thin, porous section that allowed oil to escape.
Barnhill also said the crew never learned that BP well site leader Donald Vidrine placed a phone call to Mark Hafle, an onshore drilling engineer for BP. In BP’s internal investigation into the accident, it was discovered that Hafle told Vidrine the results of the negative pressure test didn’t make sense.
“I really don’t think these guys would have consciously said, ‘Damn the torpedoes, let’s move ahead,’” if they had all that information, Barnhill said.
$64 Billion Dollar Questions
Even if the Transocean crew was working without complete information, they still made decisions that continue to confound investigators, Barnhill conceded. He said the factual record left open three “$64 billion dollar questions.”
Why did the crew and supervisors accept a pressure test interpretation that was physically impossible? Why did they proceed with a second test instead of stopping work immediately? And why didn’t anyone shut in the well when a blowout was imminent?
Plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Sterbcow pressed Barnhill to conclude from these unanswered questions that the Transocean crew was not properly trained for a worst-case scenario, but Barnhill wouldn’t go that far.
“There was an explanation that fit a potential scenario in their mind, and they moved forward,” Barnhill testified.
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