Judge Sets Aside $100 Million Verdict in BP Texas Case

March 17, 2010

A federal judge in Texas has set aside a $100 million verdict against BP Plc., saying 10 workers who sued the oil company after they were sickened by a chemical release did not prove BP was grossly negligent.

Last December a jury ordered BP to pay $100 million in punitive damages at the conclusion of a trial over the April 2007 release at BP’s 455,790 barrel-per-day refinery in Texas City, Texas.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt Tuesday set aside the jury’s finding of gross negligence, which allowed the $100 million in punitive damages. Such a finding would require “a showing of an extreme risk of harm” and that BP ignored an obvious risk and took no precautions to stop or minimize it. Also, the judge noted that BP requires monitors for such releases at the plant.

An attorney for the 10 workers who sued BP complained that the ruling gave “a free pass” for corporate behavior that harmed workers. A spokesman for BP said the company did not think it should have to pay any damages, and plans to appeal about $326,000 in awards the judge left intact for pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost wages.

Hoyt ruled that a reasonable jury could conclude that BP was the source of the release and that the company was negligent. But a finding of gross negligence was necessary to support the punitive damages award.

“The nature of refinery work is such that workers are subject to a variety of toxic odors at all times,” the judge said.

Tony Buzbee, attorney for the 10 workers who sued BP, said Hoyt’s ruling gives refineries a “free pass” from gross negligence because “everyone knows that’s dangerous.”

“As far as this court is concerned, BP and any other person or entity can injure, kill, pollute with impunity as long as they monitor for it,” Buzbee said.

BP spokesman Scott Dean said that while the company agreed with Hoyt’s ruling, BP maintains that the evidence did not support a verdict “in any amount” and that BP still aims to appeal the remaining monetary damages.

The workers said they were exposed to the chemicals while repairing two refining units damaged in a plantwide 2005 shutdown prior to Hurricane Rita’s strike on the Texas Coast.

They said BP had a poorly maintained workplace and lacked sufficient monitoring to detect toxic chemicals or warn workers of a release.

BP, which originally suggested the release could be a hoax concocted by disgruntled workers, countered that the plant did not release a toxic substance and that the odor came from outside the refinery.

An explosion at the refinery in March 2005 killed 15 workers and injured 180 more. BP paid more than $2 billion to settle hundreds of civil lawsuits and a $50 million fine to resolve criminal charges of violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.

(Reporting by Kristen Hays; Editing by David Gregorio)

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