Analysis: U.S. government attack on BP shows readiness for court battle

Thu Sep 6, 2012 2:06am EDT
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By David Ingram

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In accusing BP Plc of gross negligence and willful misconduct over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the U.S. Justice Department has shown that it is prepared for a bruising court struggle with the London-based oil giant.

Government lawyers used unusually blunt language in describing the conduct of BP and its executives in a court filing on Friday, saying that it "would not be tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall."

While settlement talks are still possible, and some saw political overtones to the timing of the Justice Department's statements ahead of this week's Democratic National Convention, most legal experts said the stinging accusations suggested that the government felt it could win a case in front of a jury and make BP suffer.

The government's sharpened language is characteristic of a case where gross negligence is the central issue, said Mary Judy, a law professor at Vermont Law School who specializes in environmental liability. The government needs to pull out outrageous examples of BP's conduct if it wants to show the company was not just negligent but grossly so, she said.

"The point they're trying to persuade the judge of is that this is so beyond unreasonable, it is ridiculous and perhaps even reckless or intentional," Judy said.

The August 31 court filing reiterated the government's long-held position that BP committed gross negligence, a position that could nearly quadruple civil damages under the Clean Water Act to $21 billion if a federal judge agrees.

While not introducing any new facts, the 39-page brief was sprinkled with tart language about what it called BP's "cherry-picked assertions" and "culture of corporate recklessness." It accused Transocean Ltd of gross negligence, too. A Transocean spokesman declined to comment.

"I read it as the government being profoundly confident in the merits of its case, a confidence that they will ultimately prevail in a finding of gross negligence," said Blaine LeCesne, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.   Continued...

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this April 21, 2010 file handout image. REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Files/Handout