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BP workers awarded $100 million in lawsuit

Author : Amy Hollamby

24 December 2009

On the 18th December a US jury awarded $100 million to 10 workers who claimed they were injured in 2007 when a toxic substance was leaked at BP PLC's Texas City plant, that consequently made them sick. Injuries included dizziness and sore throats, with one employee passing out, after inhaling the substance. But the chances of that verdict surviving intact are pretty slim.

BP workers awarded $100 million in lawsuit
BP workers awarded $100 million in lawsuit

The BP workers say that they were exposed to the chemicals while repairing two units damaged in a plant-wide shutdown in 2005 when Hurricane Rita hit the Texas coast. They claimed that BP maintained a poor workplace and had failed to have proper monitoring in place at the refinery.

However, the source of the leak was never identified and environmental agencies reported no evidence leaking it to the refinery. BP concluded that any toxic substance had come from outside. But lawyers for the workers argued the odour had come from a sulphur recovery unit at the plant. They described BP as a serial polluter

After 1 1/2 days of deliberations following a three-week trial, the Texas jury agreed with the lawyers’ case and imposed punitive damages. BP is outraged by the verdict and plans to appeal. If that fails BP intends to go to the US Supreme Court.

It's unclear whether the damages will stand at the amount initially determined by the jury. Federal courts have reduced punitive damages to levels closer to the compensatory damages awarded. In its defence, the oil group’s legal team is likely to cite a 2008 decision, that reduced the damages imposed on ExxonMobil, by 20%, from $2.5 billion to $500 million after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. BP believes that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Exxon Valdez case represents a strong precedent for the award to be reduced. Exxon persuaded the court to reject the punitive damages judgment, pointing out that it had already spent $3.4 billion in response to the accident, which polluted 1,200 miles of Alaskan coastline.

The refinery, about 30 miles southeast of Houston, was the site of a 2005 explosion that left 15 people dead and injured hundreds — the worst U.S. industrial accident since 1990.

The CSB, who investigated the incident, found that BP fostered bad management at the plant and that cost-cutting moves by BP were factors in the explosion.

An explosion at the refinery on March 23rd 2005 killed 15 workers and injured 180 others, prompting extensive civil litigation and a federal criminal plea to violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.

BP paid more than $2 billion to settle hundreds of blast-related lawsuits and a $50 million fine to resolve the criminal case.

In addition, OSHA has imposed record fines on BP for safety violations at the plant. In 2005, BP agreed to pay OSHA $21.4 million. This year the agency fined the company another $87.4 million for failing to live up to its 2005 agreement to fix safety violations at the refinery. and BP is contesting the 2009 fine.

BP is serving a three-year probation as part of the company's criminal penalty, and compliance with that 2005 agreement with OSHA is a key part of the probation.

BP can claim to be 'outraged' by the verdict, but the company's safety record in Texas City is abysmal. Serious questions persist about BP's commitment to workplace safety. The fact is, far too many workers have been killed or injured at that plant.

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