Judge frees Cameron from liability in Gulf spill trial

NEW ORLEANS –The federal judge overseeing the civil trial over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill on Wednesday threw out remaining claims against blowout preventer maker Cameron and issued findings that could have implications on the liability of other defendants in the case.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier told Cameron lawyer David Beck in federal court in New Orleans there is no evidence Cameron committed any negligence or violated any product liability statutes. As such, Barbier said he was granting Beck’s motion to dismiss the remaining claims.

Barbier previously dismissed gross negligence claims against Cameron. A finding of gross negligence could have resulted in punitive damages. Barbier also has previously dismissed all claims against M-I Swaco, which provided fluid to the ill-fated well project.

“Thank you, your honor. May I go home?” Beck asked Barbier.

“Yes,” Barbier said.

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Barbier also found that the evidence presented so far in the trial, now in its sixth week, shows that it wasn’t the actions of Cameron, maker of the 300-ton fail-safe device,that may have caused the device not to work, but rather the decisions and actions of Cameron’s customers, including  BP, which leased the  Deepwater Horizon rig and operated the well that blew out, and Transocean, which owned the rig and the  blowout preventer.

“Whether those decisions in the end were right or wrong or proper or not, they made decisions about how the blowout preventer would be configured and arranged,” Barbier said. “And they also made the decision of whether to or when to upgrade the blowout preventer based on available technology.”

BP, Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton still face the potential of a gross negligence finding. Barbier so far has refused to dismiss that claim against them, leading the three companies to continue to point fingers at each other.

An engineering expert testified Wednesday for Halliburton that there may have been a rupture in the bottom of BP’s well that allowed oil to flow unrestricted.

Frederick Beck, a drilling and wells manager for Norwegian oil and gas firm Statoil who is an expert on well design, control and monitoring, said that if there was a rupture in the well casing at that depth, any of Halliburton’s cement pumped in to the well would not seal the well at the point where the oil bearing formation was feeding the well.

“This blowout happened really, really quickly,” he said.

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He also testified that the Halliburton cement that was pumped into the undersea well that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico was approved by British oil giant BP, which was in charge of the well operation and had full authority over key decisions that were made.

Frederick Beck was the final witness called by Halliburton at the trial.

His testimony was part of the company’s last-ditch effort to shift the blame to BP and Transocean for the disaster. BP is expected to launch its defense starting Monday. Testimony in the trial could end weeks earlier than expected.

Halliburton provided the cement for BP’s Macondo well that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana on April 20, 2010, sparking an explosion on the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 men. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf for nearly three months before the well was capped.

Halliburton wants to show that even if there was a problem with the cement job, the cement was pumped with BP’s approval.

“The operator in our business is the boss,” Beck, the engineering expert, testified. “They command and control operations. They provide designs. They provide supervision.”

Halliburton also sought to show that the last line of defense to a spill, the blowout preventer, failed to work as it was intended. Transocean was responsible for maintaining the device, and BP was leasing the Deepwater Horizon rig from Transocean.

The crew of the rig should have centered the drill pipe in BP’s well before activating the blowout preventer, said Glen Stevick,  an expert in mechanical and electrical engineering who works as a consultant in the areas of design, construction and failure analysis of oilfield and refinery equipment.

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Instead, because the pipe was bent, the blowout preventer did not seal in the well a mile beneath the sea, Stevick said.

“In this case, if you operated it timely, you could have shut in the well,” Stevick said.

He also said that if the rig crew had activated an emergency disconnect system on the rig to separate it  from the well, the blowout preventer would have sealed in the well.

Stevick, president of Berkeley Engineering and Research, a consulting firm in Berkeley, Calif., said you have to “design and operate” a blowout preventer properly for it to work. He acknowledged it was BP that would have been responsible for deciding how the blowout preventer would be configured for the well project.

Rather than hear formal closing arguments, Barbier has asked for the parties to submit their conclusions in writing to the court.

The first phase of the civil trial in federal court in New Orleans is to apportion blame for the disaster. The second phase will address how much oil spilled.

Billions of dollars are at stake.


Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the legal trials surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: