Engineering News

Supreme Court May Be Next In BP Case
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lawyers for victims of the deadly 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery aim to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether a blast-related criminal plea deal should be thrown out because prosecutors violated victims' rights in crafting it.

Meanwhile, a civil trial arising from the blast continued Monday in a Galveston state district court.

In the criminal case, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that blast victims' rights were violated, but the plea deal remains on the table for a federal judge in Houston to accept or reject.

Last week the 5th Circuit denied victims' request for a hearing before the full court.

The next step is a request for Supreme Court review. The victims have asked the 5th Circuit to hold off on sending the case back to U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston so they can seek that review.

The current Supreme Court session ends July 3. The high court won't reconvene until October.

Edward Mallett, one of the lawyers representing victims who oppose the plea deal, said that various rulings from different appellate courts on how the 2004 Crime Victims Rights Act should be interpreted merit a Supreme Court review, even though "time is against us."

The plea deal, announced in October, calls for BP's North American products division to plead guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, pay a $50 million fine and serve three years' probation. Fifteen people died in the blast.

Blast victims say the deal is too lenient, particularly the fine, and have called for BP to pay $200 million to $1 billion.

Keith Casey, current manager of the Texas City plant, entered the plea in February. But Rosenthal has not accepted or rejected it.

A three-judge 5th Circuit panel ruled in May that the victim rights act was violated when U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas, at the government's request, allowed prosecutors to negotiate the plea deal with BP in secret.

The government counters that alerting victims could mean plea talks become publicly known, possibly violating BP's right to a fair trial should negotiations break down before a deal is reached.

In the Galveston civil trial, a process safety expert hired by plaintiffs suing BP repeatedly criticized the company for using antiquated equipment that violated BP's own policies.

Ten plant workers and four of their wives are seeking damages for injuries they allege they sustained because of the blast.

Plaintiffs' attorney Brent Coon presented documents showing BP had considered replacing the blowdown stack that overfilled and contributed to the blast but chose not spend the money. In 2002, documents indicated it would have cost $2.4 million.

"It shows they were not willing to make the investment to make the equipment safe," Sawyer said.

Sawyer acknowledged on cross-examination by BP lawyer Jim Galbraith that he had never worked at a refinery or for any petrochemical company before he started his consulting firm in 1994. Galbraith also detailed various safety studies the company had done prior to the blast as well as BP's investigation report following the explosion.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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