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BP Deepwater Spill Negligence Appeal Centers on Expert Testimony

In September, a federal judge determine that British Petroleum (BP) was “grossly negligent” for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill, exposing the company to potentially $18 billion in additional fines – raising BP’s total costs of the disaster to over $50 billion.  Earlier this month, BP appealed the decision arguing that expert witness testimony was unfairly used as evidence.

Federal Judge finds BP Grossly Negligent for Deepwater Disaster

US District Court Carl Barbier determined that BP had been grossly negligent in its duty to prevent and minimize the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 men and poured millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Central to Judge Barbier’s determination was his finding that cement used to seal the well had been improperly placed by BP, and the resulting structural damage had caused the explosion.  Judge Barbier will hold a separate hearing starting in January to determine how much of the potentially $18 billion in fines to assign.

BP officials expressed their disagreement with the decision, saying, “The finding that it was grossly negligent with respect to the accident and that its activities at the Macondo well amounted to willful misconduct is not supported by the evidence at trial.”  BP has long contended that Halliburton, which was responsible for providing the cement that proved fatal to the rig, was the party which deserved most of the blame, but Judge Barbier disagreed by attributing 2/3 of the blame to BP and only 3{d61575bddc780c1d4ab39ab904bf25755f3b8d1434703a303cf443ba00f43fa4} to Halliburton (the remaining 30{d61575bddc780c1d4ab39ab904bf25755f3b8d1434703a303cf443ba00f43fa4} of responsibility was assigned to Transocean, which owned the Deepwater rig).

Earlier this month, BP submitted an appeal of the decision, focusing specifically on Barbier’s reliance on information from an expert witness report prepared by Halliburton petroleum engineer, Gene Beck.

BP’s Appeal Focuses on Expert Witness Testimony

Gene Beck, called as an expert witness by Halliburton during earlier phases of the trial, testified in court that the casing surrounding the cement – which BP was responsible for placing – was weakened by improper installation.  According to Beck, this weakened casing allowed a breach through which oil and gas could leak into the well and cause the blowout.  Although Beck’s hypothesis could prove useful in diagnosing the disaster, he neglected to include it in the report he submitted as evidence.  After Beck’s expert testimony, BP attorneys asked that his weakened casing theory be dismissed because it “wasn’t fair” to discuss a hypothesis that was not in Beck’s report.  Barbier agreed, and Beck’s expert testimony about the weakened casing was omitted from the trial record.

In issuing his opinion that assigned BP 2/3 of the responsibility, however, Barbier relied extensively on Beck’s expert weakened casing theories that he ordered stricken during trial.  BP’s appeal argues that Barbier improperly used Beck’s hypothesis because the company did not have an opportunity to rebut the expert witness testimony. According to its appeal, BP was unfairly denied the chance to present a counter argument – leaving Barbier to base his decision on incomplete facts and insufficient evidence.

To support its position, BP included an expert witness report from David Lewis, chairman of Blade Energy Partners, who argued that Beck’s weakened casing theory was unreliable.  Lewis undercut the weakened casing argument by saying that even if BP’s casing was subject to the conditions that Beck hypothesized, the impact would not have been enough to cause the breach.  Beck’s own expert witness report, which was admitted during trial, was unable to identify the specific cause of the failure. BP’s appeal not only argues legal reasons by Beck’s weakened casing theory was improperly used, but also presents an alternative for Barbier to consider.

Barbier’s Ruling Based on more than Excluded Expert Opinion

Legal experts acknowledge that Barbier improperly relied on Beck’s expert witness testimony about the weakened casing, but are quick to point out that the judge joined several arguments for BP’s negligence, including: BP’s insistence on drilling deeper than safety provisions allowed, other expert witness testimony that offered theories consistent with Beck’s, and evidence that Halliburton’s cement was not the root cause of the spill. Despite flaws in its appeal, with over $18 billion on the line, expect BP’s resistance to extend the trial well into next year.