Testimony Ends in Deepwater Horizon Trial’s First Phase

Posted April 17, 2013 in Crime by

Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Oil giant BP rested its case today in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill trial, just days before the third anniversary of the accident that killed 11 workers and polluted the Gulf of Mexico with millions of barrels of oil.

Testimony is over for the first phase of the trial, but it will be months before even a partial verdict is announced. In lieu of traditional closing arguments, parties in the trial will submit written statements to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. Barbier gave attorneys 60 days to submit their statements plus 20 days to prepare rebuttal statements, and it’s unclear whether he will announce his phase one verdict after that or wait until the end of the trial. Phase two, which will examine the amount of oil spilled, is scheduled to begin in September. Phase three, which will determine damages, will likely begin in early 2014.

Phase one focused on whether defendants BP, Transocean and Halliburton engaged in gross negligence or willful misconduct during their work on the Macondo oil well. If any of the defendants are found guilty of either charge, their forthcoming fines under the Clean Water Act will nearly quadruple.

Executive Describes Blowout

  Click here to read our full coverage of the trial.  

One of BP’s last witnesses was Patrick O’Bryan,  BP’s former vice president of drilling and completions for the Gulf region, who was aboard the Deepwater Horizon when the deadly blowout occurred. O’Bryan testified that the Deepwater Horizon was “one of the better rigs in Transocean’s fleet.”

“It’s what good looks like,” O’Bryan said.

O’Bryan testified that he knew something was wrong when he heard “a hissing noise, and then there was an explosion,” followed by “a big sucking sound” and “a second, much larger explosion.”

BP Targets Rig Captain

O’Bryan testified that just prior to the blowout, someone in the rig’s bridge asked Captain Curt Kuchta, to activate the blowout preventer. O’Bryan said Kuchta replied that he couldn’t do that without the approval of Transocean drilling specialist Jimmy Harrell, who was not in the bridge.

Harrell was hurt in the blast and didn’t make it to the bridge until minutes later. O’Bryan testified that Harrell’s first question upon arriving was whether the emergency safety systems had been activated, and that he gave the order when he learned that Kuchta had been waiting on his approval.

O’Bryan said that Kuchta seemed to be in disbelief when the rig’s power systems failed, testifying that it “appeared to me that he wasn’t quite sure what to do.”

O’Bryan’s testimony set the stage for BP’s final witness, marine safety expert Andrew Mitchell, who testified that Kuchta was “not properly qualified for command.”

Mitchell said Kuchta did not understand the extent of his authority and should have activated the safety systems as soon as he realized a blowout was imminent. Mitchell also testified that this was due in part to a “confusing command structure” implemented by Transocean.

The other factor Mitchell pointed to in his assessment of Kuchta’s leadership was his “inexperience.” Mitchell said Kuchta was promoted through the ranks quickly and was young for a rig captain.

Transocean attorney Brad Bryan seemed to defend Kuchta’s actions by questioning Mitchell about Kuchta’s rescue efforts after the rig was abandoned. Kuchta was the last one to leave the rig and had to dive 70 feet into the gulf. When he noticed an occupied inflatable raft was tethered to the burning rig, he swam to a rescue boat, retrieved a knife, and swam back to cut them loose.

“If he’d have done his job in the first place, he wouldn’t have been in the water with a knife,” Mitchell testified.

Plaintiff’s attorney Conrad Williams asked Mitchell, “In your opinion, was Captain Kuchta fit to be captain of the Deepwater Horizon?”

“No,” Mitchell said.

What do you think about the trial now that testimony is over for phase one? Tell us in the comments section below.

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