BP Plc deliberately exposed neighbors of a Texas refinery to tons of cancer-causing gases and then misled regulators and community leaders about the dangers, a lawyer told a Texas jury.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberations today after four weeks of testimony on the first three of almost 48,000 toxic-exposure claims to come to trial. The plaintiffs seek as much as $200,000 each in actual damages, plus $10 billion in punitive damages which, they said in court papers, they would donate to charity.
“This is not an assault on the oil and gas industry,” Tony Buzbee, the residents’ lead attorney, told the state court jury in Galveston yesterday in closing arguments. “This is about the worst polluter in the country finally having its feet held to the fire.”
BP intentionally vented at least 500,000 pounds (227,000 kilograms) of toxic chemicals, including benzene, from a faulty refinery unit in Texas City to a flare the company knew was incapable of destroying the toxins, Buzbee told the jury of eight women and four men. He said the London-based company would have lost more than $20 million if it had shut the unit down during repairs.
“This ain’t an accident, it’s a corporate policy,” he said. BP could have shut the refinery down when the production unit failed, he said. Management “purposely sent those chemicals over the fence with conscious indifference to the consequences.”
Judge Lonnie Cox said jurors can consider whether BP acted with gross negligence, which might lead to punitive damages based in part on BP’s net worth.
BP denies anyone was injured by emissions from the refinery, which was later sold.
The refinery’s flare was highly efficient during the incident and destroyed or dispersed virtually all toxins vented to it, Damond Mace, a BP attorney, told jurors yesterday.
“The critical question is what if anything made it down to ground level where these people were,” Mace said. “But even if we look at what came out of the top of the stack,” the amounts of chemicals released by BP during the incident “did not exceed their permit,” he said.
The concentrations of harmful gases that reached the ground were “far, far, far below” any level that would have caused health effects, according to BP testing, Mace said.
The chemicals released were measured in parts per billion, akin to one drop of a foul substance in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
“You can put anything you want in that pool, but if you get less than a drop in your mouth, do you think it’s going to do anything to you?” Mace asked jurors. “There’s no dose in this case.”
Jurors heard testimony that BP’s Texas refinery had 193 toxic-emission events over the five years prior to this incident -- “73 of which were excessive, and their monitors didn’t pick up one of them,” Buzbee said. “They had 73 of those, and it didn’t change their conduct one iota.”
“How do you punish a company that thumbs its nose at the law?” Buzbee asked, noting that some jurors said during jury selection they believe punitive damages are “out of control.”
“I think BP’s out of control,” he said. “They continue to operate in our country, and they only understand one thing and that’s money.”
While Buzbee asked in court filings for punitive damages equaling as much as 10 percent of BP’s net worth, he showed jurors a chart that topped out at $3.98 billion. “Make it too expensive for them to ever do it again; make an example of them,” he urged jurors.
Mace encouraged jurors not to be influenced by “character attacks” on the company. “You can love or hate BP; that’s not to enter into your decision,” he said. “You should not award anything.”
“These plaintiffs have to prove they have a personal injury that was caused by BP’s conduct, and nothing happened to hurt these individuals,” BP’s lawyer told jurors. Buzbee “rounded up more than 100 people and persuaded them they’d been injured by BP when they were not,” Mace said.
The Texas City emissions incident overlapped the start of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which began when a rig exploded while drilling a BP well off the Louisiana coast. BP has paid more than $30 billion in spill-related cleanup costs, damages and fines, with thousands of damages claims remaining to be resolved in a separate proceeding in federal court in New Orleans.
BP Products North America sold the Texas City refinery to Marathon Petroleum Corp. in a transaction announced last October. The site was the scene of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and resulted in payments of $2.1 billion to local residents and businesses harmed by the blast.
The company agreed in 2011 to pay Texas $50 million to settle air-pollution violations at the plant from 2005 through 2011, including the release of about 500,000 pounds of harmful chemicals during the 2010 flaring incident.
The case is In re MDL Litigation Regarding Texas City Refinery Ultracracker Emission Event Litigation, 10-UC-0001, Texas 56th Judicial District Court (Galveston).