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'Trial of the century': Can BP deflect blame for Gulf oil spill?

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To be sure, the defendant side of the docket is complex, since the trial judge (there is no jury) will have to decide what percentage of responsibility each of the three major players – BP, the speculator; Transocean, the rig owner; and Halliburton, a key drilling consultant – will have to bear if found responsible.

But the plaintiff side, too, is rife with tension, particularly because joining federal lawyers and environmental groups are five separate affected states – Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas – all of which have differing thoughts on whether to settle the case quickly for maximum payout or push BP into a trial that will illuminate how deeply the spill affects not just wildlife, but everyone from fishermen to hotel owners, bartenders, and maids.

Part of the problem is that plaintiffs don't want to take a deal that's inadequate given lingering unknowns, including potential future problems from the spill.

“It will be years, even decades, before we understand the true impacts of the spill," says Chris Canfield, a vice president of the National Audubon Society, in a statement. "The law requires BP to compensate the American people for all the damage that was done – for every smothered blade of marsh grass and for every oiled pelican – as well as for any long-term effects we may have not yet seen…. The outcome of this case must ensure that BP will be held fully accountable not only for the damages we see today, but also for any damages we will discover years from now.”

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