BP wins effort to bar past accidents during spill trial

BP won a preliminary bid to bar the introduction of evidence of previous accidents involving the oil company from this month’s trial over fault for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico blast and oil spill.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans today issued rulings blocking the introduction of exhibits pertaining to the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery and a 2006 oil spill at its Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska.

The April 2010 Macondo well blowout and explosion killed 11 workers and caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The accident spurred hundreds of lawsuits against BP and its partners, including Transocean Ltd., the Switzerland-based owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded, Halliburton Co., which provided cementing services for the project, and Anadarko, the owner of 25 percent of the well.

“The prior incidents were all land-based, while the Macondo incident occurred in the Gulf of Mexico,” Barbier said. The circumstances of those accidents were “vastly different,” he said.

Steve Herman, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on the ruling. Ellen Moskowitz, a spokeswoman for London-based BP, declined to comment.

Thousands of property owners and businesses on the Gulf claim economic and environmental harm from the spill. The U.S. sued BP, Anadarko and Transocean in December 2010, alleging violations of federal pollution laws. The coastal states Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi also sued the companies.

The suits are consolidated before Barbier and a non-jury trial is set to begin on Feb. 27.

BP asked the judge in November to bar the plaintiffs steering committee, which represents the non-government claimants, from using evidence of the prior incidents in the trial over fault for the explosion and sinking of the rig.

Barbier’s rulings today prevent the evidence from being shown in what he labeled the Phase I trial, which will determine the legal cause of the blast as well as the ensuing fire and sinking of the drilling rig.

The Texas City refinery explosion killed 15 workers and injured hundreds. BP pleaded guilty to a violation of the Clean Air Act and paid a $50 million fine.

The company was also fined $87 million in 2009 by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration over safety shortfalls at the refinery.

After the Alaska spill, BP pleaded guilty in 2007 to a violation of the Clean Water Act and paid $20 million in penalties after 200,000 gallons of oil from its Prudhoe Bay field flowed into water on Alaska’s North Slope in 2006.

The case is In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).