The almost 4-year long court battle surrounding the BP Oil Spill seems to have taken a turn for the worst for BP. Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana determined the London-based company’s gross negligence and willful misconduct led to millions of gallons of oil being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. This means BP could face “enhanced civil penalties” under the Clean Water Act – which nearly quadruples if a discharge of oil results from gross negligence or willful misconduct.
In a detailed, 152-page “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” issued last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier discussed several acts or omissions by BP which he believed amounted to gross negligence or willful misconduct. First, there was the negative pressure test (a safety procedure which determines whether heavy drilling mud could be safely removed) which BP admittedly misinterpreted. The court found that BP’s Well Site Leader likely knew of facts that should have led him to realize that the negative pressure test was not “successful” and displacing the mud from the well would probably result in injuries, death, and severe property damage. But the court noted that after the Well Site Leader spoke with BP’S senior drilling engineer, he “absolutely knew” of facts that would lead a reasonable company man to stop the displacement and conduct a new test. Thus, BP’s misinterpretation of the negative pressure test and failure to order another negative pressure test “was an extreme departure from the care required under the circumstances.”
The court also discussed a series of other negligent acts or omissions committed by BP that resulted in the massive oil spill, which together amount to gross negligence and willful misconduct. These acts or omissions include:
- Drilling the final 100 feet of the well with little or no margin;
- Running the production casing with the float collar in unconverted mode and without a shoe filter;
- Failing to verify whether the float collar converted by reverse circulating the well, not conducting a cement bond log (“CBL”);
- Using left-over lost circulation material (“LCM”) as a spacer for the displacement and negative pressure test;
- Misinterpreting the negative pressure test;
- Allowing simultaneous operations to occur during displacement; and
- Failing to provide a displacement schedule to the Transocean drill crew.
Judge Barbier made it a point to note that “the decisions regarding drilling the final 100 feet, the CBL, and LCM-spacer were profit-driven decisions.”
The court’s Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law further held BP and two other defendants, Transocean and Halliburton, liable under general maritime law for “engaging in conduct that was negligent or worst.” Sixty seven percent of the liability was attributed to BP’s reckless conduct. In addition, the court found BP’s employees’ conduct to be egregious enough to warrant exemplary or punitive damages. While the court determined BP could not be held liable for punitive damages due to binding Fifth Circuit precedent, liability would exist for claims brought under the First Circuit or Ninth Circuit.
It comes as no surprise reports are already surfacing that BP intends to appeal the court’s ruling.