(Corrects name of professor in fourth paragraph)
* US lawyers show no equivocation in new court filing
* Colorful BP emails reference 'chaos,' Village People music
By David Ingram
WASHINGTON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - In accusing BP Plc of
gross negligence and willful misconduct over the 2010 Deepwater
Horizon oil spill, the U.S. Justice Department has shown that it
is prepared for a bruising court struggle with the London-based
Government lawyers used unusually blunt language in
describing the conduct of BP and its executives in a court
filing on Friday, saying that it "would not be tolerated in a
middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a
While settlement talks are still possible, and some saw
political overtones to the timing of the Justice Department's
statements ahead of this week's Democratic National Convention,
most legal experts said the stinging accusations suggested that
the government felt it could win a case in front of a jury and
make BP suffer.
The government's sharpened language is characteristic of a
case where gross negligence is the central issue, said Martha
Judy, a law professor at Vermont Law School who specializes in
environmental liability. The government needs to pull out
outrageous examples of BP's conduct if it wants to show the
company was not just negligent but grossly so, she said.
"The point they're trying to persuade the judge of is that
this is so beyond unreasonable, it is ridiculous and perhaps
even reckless or intentional," Judy said.
The Aug. 31 court filing reiterated the government's
long-held position that BP committed gross negligence, a
position that could nearly quadruple civil damages under the
Clean Water Act to $21 billion if a federal judge agrees.
While not introducing any new facts, the 39-page brief was
sprinkled with tart language about what it called BP's
"cherry-picked assertions" and "culture of corporate
recklessness." It accused Transocean Ltd of gross
negligence, too. A Transocean spokesman declined to comment.
"I read it as the government being profoundly confident in
the merits of its case, a confidence that they will ultimately
prevail in a finding of gross negligence," said Blaine LeCesne,
a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.
BP contests the allegation, and in a statement responding to
the Justice Department on Tuesday said it "looks forward to
presenting evidence on this issue" at a trial scheduled to begin
in January 2013 in New Orleans. The company had no further
comment on Wednesday.
The U.S. government and BP are engaged in talks to settle
civil and potential criminal liability, though neither side will
comment on the status of negotiations. LeCesne said the Justice
Department's filing firmly signals that it is ready for trial.
"The lines have been drawn, and they are preparing for
battle," LeCesne said. "Unless there is a significant about-face
in BP's perspective this case is going to trial."
The filing comes more than two years after the disaster that
struck on April 20, 2010 when a surge of methane gas known to
rig hands as a "kick" sparked an explosion aboard the Deepwater
Horizon rig as it was drilling the mile (1.6 km)-deep Macondo
252 well off Louisiana's coast. The rig sank two days later.
The well spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of
Mexico for 87 straight days, unleashing a torrent of oil that
fouled the shorelines of four Gulf Coast states and eclipsed the
1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in severity.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on
To illustrate the idea that BP was grossly negligent leading
up to the 2010 oil spill, Justice Department lawyers highlighted
internal BP emails that, while previously public, remain
colorful and potentially embarrassing.
For example, in an email to his boss, BP team leader John
Guide wrote that the Macondo drilling team was "flying by the
seat of our pants."
"Everybody wants to do the right thing, but this huge level
of paranoia from engineering leadership is driving chaos," Guide
wrote in the email, which government lawyers quoted near the
front of their latest brief.
Houston-based David Sims responded by email that they should
speak later because he was on his way to dance practice. "We're
dancing to the Village People," Sims wrote.
GETTING BUSY AGAIN
An internal BP investigation after the oil spill did not
mention the existence of the emails, which should have been a
"clarion cry of impending disaster," government lawyers wrote.
Justice Department lawyers were not required to file the
brief. They did so voluntarily in a matter the government is not
a party to, a $7.8 billion settlement BP reached with
individuals and businesses.
The department was concerned that, in approving that
settlement, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier could make a ruling
about negligence that would later hurt the government's
position, government lawyers wrote.
The government's brief got the attention of analysts at the
financial services firm Raymond James & Associates, which said
its timing was meant to make an impact before the Democratic
National Convention in Charlotte.
"After several quiet months on the legal front, the DOJ is
getting busy again, and the political overtones seem readily
apparent," the analysts wrote.
(Editing by Chris Baltimore and Richard Chang; Desking by Vicki