Analysis: BP's legal gamble may trim spill bill by billions

Mon Apr 22, 2013 1:27am EDT
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By Kathy Finn and Braden Reddall

NEW ORLEANS/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - BP Plc's attempt to get a U.S. federal court to pin at least a sizeable amount of the blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster on other companies may have saved it billions of dollars.

After failing to settle claims from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill through negotiations, the British oil company opted in February to go to trial with plaintiffs ranging from small businesses to the U.S. government over the damages it will face.

The decision rests with U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier, who could issue findings on blame and the level of negligence as early as July.

Legal experts say BP appeared to succeed in shifting some of the blame for the disaster to rig owner Transocean Ltd and cement provider Halliburton Co. In doing so, it may have shaved a slice off a liability that could stretch into the tens of billions of dollars.

BP "put their faith in the hands of the court," said Blaine LeCesne, a tort law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who has followed the trial closely. "It looks like that might have paid off."

Of course, if Barbier determines that BP was grossly negligent then it could more than offset anything it has saved by getting the rap for the disaster shared more broadly.

LeCesne, and two other legal experts who followed the trial but spoke privately on the matter, believed BP had some success in offloading blame for the worst U.S. offshore spill, which was caused by a blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 people exactly three years ago on Saturday.

During the trial last Wednesday, Transocean may have taken a hit from BP's final witness, Andrew Mitchell, a 40-year veteran of the offshore oil industry and now an International Safety Management Code consultant.   Continued...

Spectators are seen reflected in a British Petroleum sponsors building in Olympic Park at the London 2012 Paralympic Games September 6, 2012. REUTERS/Toby Melville