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Gulf Coast oil spill trial begins with fingers pointing at BP

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The trial over the worst oil spill in American history began on Monday in New Orleans, with a slew of lawyers representing the government, businesses, contractors and individuals mostly trying to place the blame on BP for the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Federal prosecutors and plaintiffs’ lawyers argued the oil giant is guilty of gross negligence that caused the 2010 disaster that killed 11 rig workers and poured 4 million barrels worth of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

"Not only was it within BP's power to prevent the tragedy, it was its responsibility," said Mike Underhill, a U.S. Justice Department trial attorney.


Underhill argued that less than an hour after the BP well erupted, the company’s head well site leader noticed a problem in a pressure test.  It was at that moment the well should have been shut off, Underhill argued, but it was not and instead exploded.

Judge Carl Barbier is overseeing the trial with no jury at the federal court in New Orleans.  BP must show its errors do not meet the legal definition of gross negligence.  The company has already paid $37 billion in cleanup, restoration, fines and settlements since the spill.

It is likely that a settlement will be reached outside the court room before a verdict is reached.

BP lawyer Mike Brock argued the company is not solely responsible for the environmental disaster. Instead, that responsibility is shared by rig owner, Transcocrean, and cement services provider, Halliburton.  

"There were a number of mistakes and errors in judgment that were made by BP, Transocean and Halliburton," Brock said.

Transocean lawyer Brad Brian said BP had betrayed the trust of the workers on the rig and cited emails in which BP employees referred to it as “the well from hell.”

Halliburton's lawyer, Don Godwin, equally went after BP, but added Transocean should have shut off the well when the troubling signs were initially noticed.

"Now is when they want to pass the buck and blame my client for their misdeeds," he said.

Jim Roy, an attorney representing some of the plantiffs suing the three companies and others, said companies involved shoulder the blame. He told the judge they were motivated by "Production over protection. Profits over safety,"

Oil reached the shores of all five Gulf Coast states, wreaking havoc on local economies dependent on tourism and seafood. For that reason, there is a long list of plantifs looking for monetary compensation for their losses.

Despite the cleanup effort, many communities along the coast say they are still feeling the impact from the April 2010 spill.

Monday marked the opening of the trials first phase, aimed at assessing how much each company is to blame and their degree of negligence.  Future trials will focus on the amount of oil that spilled from the well and the damages.

BP has denied gross negligence since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Reuters contributed to this report