NEW ORLEANS — BP finally faced off in court Monday against an army of federal and state prosecutors, lawyers and even its contract partners over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill three years ago, contending that it alone should not shoulder blame for the rig explosion that killed 11 workers and soiled beaches and marshes from Louisiana to Florida.
BP's share of responsibility is not only the crux of the trial that opened Monday, but it also is at the heart of a last-minute settlement proposal offered by the Justice Department and the five affected gulf states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — that are demanding that BP pay $16 billion in spill-related fines and penalties.
But as the long-awaited trial began here, federal prosecutors and plaintiffs' lawyers made emotional appeals for the trial judge to find BP guilty of gross negligence, pointing to mounds of e-mails, documents and reports that had already been made public in the case. BP believes it should be held to a more lenient standard.
"Reckless actions were tolerated by BP, sometimes encouraged by BP," said Michael Underhill, the Justice Department's lead prosecutor. "These damages were caused by actions that cannot be seen as anything but inexcusable behavior."
Mr. Underhill discussed a phone call between Donald Vidrine, a BP supervisor on the rig who faces criminal charges, with Mark Hafle, an onshore engineer, in which Mr. Vidrine described problems with a critical test less than an hour before the explosion. Neither man took action to prevent the eventual blowout.
"They had a conversation that could have saved 11 lives, saved the gulf, saved the people of the gulf from catastrophe," Mr. Underhill said.
If federal and state officials are successful in proving gross negligence against BP in its handling of the spill, the fines against the company will be four times as high as under a lower standard of liability, negligence.
BP's lawyer, Robert C. Brock, defended the company's design of the well and denied that the company had been grossly negligent. He characterized the drilling of a well as a team effort in which the company and its contractors — Halliburton and Transocean, who also are defendants — all needed to take responsibility.
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