Photograph by Pat Sullivan/AP PhotoA former BP engineer faces obstruction-of-justice charges today in the first criminal trial stemming from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The prosecution in New Orleans serves as a reminder of the human consequences of the disaster, even as the British oil giant tries to limit its multibillion-dollar civil liability in a rancorous feud with plaintiffs’ attorneys and a federal judge.
“U.S. prosecutors charged Kurt Mix with two counts of obstruction of justice last year, alleging he deleted from his mobile phone text messages and voice mails related to the company’s effort to estimate the size of the spill. Mix has pleaded not guilty. His trial in federal court in New Orleans is scheduled to start today with jury selection. The blowout of BP’s deep-water Macondo well off the coast of Louisiana in April 2010 killed 11 people and set off the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Prosecutors allege Mix destroyed material sought for a federal probe of the disaster. Mix denies any intentional destruction of evidence.
“‘The government has a solid case but it may be difficult to show he acted corruptly,’ said David Uhlmann, professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor and former head of the environmental crimes section of the U.S. Justice Department. ‘Mix’s lawyer will argue that any destruction of evidence made no difference in the government’s investigation,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘It may not be a valid legal argument, but it may affect how a jury views Mix’s conduct.’”
Various corporate players have already admitted criminal liability in the disaster. BP agreed last year to pay $4 billion as part of a plea deal involving 14 criminal counts—11 of them for felony manslaughter. BP contractor Transocean (RIG), which operated the doomed Deepwater Horizon oil rig, pleaded guilty in February to one misdemeanor count of violating the federal Clean Water Act and agreed to pay a $400 million fine. Another contractor, Halliburton (HAL), agreed in July to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to preserve computer models of the final cement job for the well. More criminal prosecutions of individual former BP employees are scheduled for next year.
Apart from questions of the culpability of ex-BP managers and executives, there’s the dollars-and-cents matter of the company’s civil liability. After initially trying to resolve its courtroom exposure by means of settlements and conciliation, BP has lately taken a more aggressive stance, accusing plaintiffs’ attorneys and a federal trial judge in New Orleans of encouraging inflated and “fictions” claims against the company. More on that aspect of the controversy can be found in this Bloomberg Businessweek article, which includes links to additional coverage.