Last updated: February 25, 2013 8:29 pm

US seeks maximum fine in BP spill trial

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Activists holds signs during a protest in front of the Hale Boggs Federal Building on the first day of the trial over the Deep Water Horizon oil rig spill on February 25, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 11 men were killed during the accident and over 4 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.©Getty

BP acted with “wilful misconduct” in the lead-up to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the US government has alleged at the start of the trial over the accident, as it pushes for the highest possible penalties and damages.

BP rejected the accusation, saying that the disaster had involved multiple causes and multiple companies.

In his opening statement, Michael Underhill, presenting the case for the US Department of Justice, said that even if any individual action by BP staff might not amount to wilful misconduct, the “accumulation of actions” that caused the disaster reached that standard. He added: “The evidence will show BP put profits before people, profits before safety, and profits before the environment.”

BP’s chief lawyer, Mike Brock, responded that wilful misconduct or gross negligence were “high standards” for the government to prove.

The trial in New Orleans will determine liability for civil damages and penalties over the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, in which 11 men were killed and up to 4.1m barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

A finding of wilful misconduct – a higher standard than gross negligence – would both expose BP to penalties under the Clean Water Act of up to $17.6bn and increase the likelihood that the judge would impose a penalty closer to that maximum. The DoJ is alleging that BP knew or should have known that its decisions would lead to an accident.

Lawyers for the US government, private sector plaintiffs and the states of Alabama and Louisiana also argued that BP’s contractors Transocean, owner of the rig, and Halliburton, which supplied cement intended to seal the well, acted with gross negligence. The companies reject the accusations.

Transocean said its staff had been working under the direction of BP, which was responsible for the disaster. Halliburton denied there was a problem with its cement, and said it was decisions by BP and Transocean that had led to the accident.

In his opening statement, Mr Underhill said BP had been on a “course of recklessness charted in Houston and London”.

He focused on a critical “negative pressure test” intended to show whether the well was safely sealed with cement, saying it was “incomprehensible” that BP and Transocean staff had decided it had been passed.

Mr Brock responded that while BP accepted that the companies’ employees had made a mistake, “this does not reflect gross negligence, want of care [or] intentional wilful conduct …. These people were trying to get it right; trying to do the right thing.”

Luther Strange, the attorney-general of Alabama, confirmed that coastal states affected by the spill were seeking punitive damages from BP and the other companies involved.

The states, which have claimed more than $34bn, had been in talks about a possible settlement deal with BP, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations. However, one person familiar with the talks said it had been difficult to reconcile the states’ competing interests, describing the effort to bring them to a common position as “like herding cats”.

The first phase of the trial, to establish the causes of the accident, is scheduled to last for three months. A second phase, to assess how much oil spilled, is planned for September.

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