By Harvey Rice
GALVESTON — Jurors should set an example for other companies that put profit ahead of safety by punishing BP with a multibillion dollar fine for spewing toxic gases from its former Texas City refinery, an attorney said Monday at the end of a month-long trial.
The plea for punitive damages of up to 10 percent of the company’s estimated $147 billion in annual revenues came during final arguments in a lawsuit by three alleged victims, a test case that will affect nearly 48,000 pending cases resulting from the gas release.
“Punishment doesn’t just punish BP going forward, it deters any corporation,” said Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing the three alleged victims. “The only way you can do that is to make it too expensive for them to do it again.”
State District Judge Lonnie Cox dismissed a fourth alleged victim from the case for failing to prove an injury.
BP attorneys countered that Buzbee failed to show that the illnesses suffered were caused by the gas emission or that the fumes were strong enough to cause harm.
“We are here because counsel rounded up 100 clients and persuaded them they were injured by BP chemicals when they weren’t,” BP attorney Damond Mace told jurors.
The jurors will begin deliberations Tuesday.
Buzbee asked jurors to award his three clients between $15,000 and $25,000 each. He has said that any punitive damages awarded will be donated to charity.
BP saved $90 million by releasing the mixture of toxic gases beteen April 6 and May 22, 2010, instead of shutting down a malfunctioning compressor, Buzbee told jurors. The compressor failure forced the refinery to release gases through a defective flare, a tower with a burner designed to burn away pollutants released into the air.
The 40-day release at the BP plant, purchased by Marathon Petroleum Co. last year, was one of 193 emissions events at the plant over five years, he said.
“That shocks the consciousness,” Buzbee said.
The company failed to fix the compressor despite pleas from its own employees because it didn’t want to spend the money, he said.
BP attorneys said the concentrations of chemicals released were too small to damage health and the illnesses suffered by Buzbee’s clients were everyday health problems wrongly blamed on the BP release.
Mace said the the exposure of Buzbee’s clients amounted to less than a drop in a swimming pool.
BP attorney Kenneth Tekell Sr. said Buzbee failed to show that his clients’ illnesses were related to the gas release.
“Their case does not make it,” Tekell said. “They haven’t proved a case based on science or based on medicine that BP caused anybody any harm.”
Mace said the flare was 99.5 percent efficient in burning away pollutants.
“The plaintiff’s case is a house of cards built upon a false assumption that the ultracracker flare was impaired,” he said.
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal problems for BP stemming from mishaps at its former Texas City refinery.
BP settled a lawsuit by the Texas attorney general by paying $50 million for air-pollution violations from 2005 to 2011, including the 2010 release that led to the case that went to the jury Monday.
The company paid $2.1 billion to settle lawsuits by 3,000 people following a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers.
In April, Buzbee filed a $1 billion lawsuit on behalf of 474 Galveston County residents who claim their health was damaged in a 2011 release of toxic gases that lasted several weeks.
The 2010 release in Texas City occurred while BP was trying to halt the release of oil from its Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The company faces thousands of damage and injury claims from the spill and has paid more than $30 million in cleanup costs, fines and damages.