By Whit Remer, Policy Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund
Today, I watched opening statements from inside the courtroom of one of the most complex and high stakes trials in this nation’s history. The first day of the BP trial consisted of nearly six and a half hours of opening statements by both sides of the litigation. Opening statements allow each party the opportunity to present an overview of their case. On the plaintiffs’ side, attorneys represented citizens who lost income as a result of the oil spill as well as the federal and state governments pursuing claims for economic and environmental damages. On the defense side, BP and other companies involved in the spill spent the majority of the time pointing fingers at each other over who was at fault for the events leading up to one of the nation’s largest environmental disasters.
The first phase of the trial is scheduled to last three months and will focus on the events that caused the explosion aboard the troubled rig. On the plaintiffs’ side, attorneys focused on a series of missteps, mainly taken by BP, that that took the lives of 11 men and spilled millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. A lot of attention was focused on BP putting profit over protection. Plaintiffs painted BP as a company more worried about making money than the safety of its workers or practicing responsible drilling in the gulf. BP defended itself by saying that while they did make some mistakes, their actions didn’t amount to gross negligence.
BP’s irresponsibility will be an overarching theme of the trial. Should the judge determine that the company acted grossly negligent or with willful disregard, then BP faces civil Clean Water Act fines of $17.6 billion. Later phases in the trial will also determine the extent of damages to the gulf ecosystem, which could also reach the tens of billions of dollars.
All parties to the litigation have incentive to settle. The government would like to resolve Clean Water Act fines and natural resources damages so that money can be used to begin important ecosystem restoration. For BP, trial has brought bad PR and uncertainty for investors that will keep them at the bargaining table. In such a high stakes legal dance, both parties need to remember that the gulf is still reeling from damage caused by the oil spill. As Buddy Caldwell, Attorney General for the state of Louisiana, noted this morning, officials continue to find oil just 30 miles from the court steps in Barataria Bay, La. It’s time for BP to stop stalling and pay up for the damage they caused in the gulf.