TEXAS CITY — When attorney Jim Galbraith looks back on the March 23, 2005 explosions at what was then BP’s Texas City refinery, he recalls the chaos created by the series of explosions that killed 15 people and injured more than 170.
He also recalls something else.
“One of my most vivid takeaways from that effort is the extent to which everyone we worked with exhibited personal care and concern,” Galbraith said.
Even as emergency personnel and rescue workers continued to tend to the injured and search for those missing or killed, Galbraith was called to the refinery.
“I was called out to the plant that afternoon and served as liaison counsel to the investigation committee,” Galbraith said. “For the next weeks and months, we worked from early each morning to late each night, seven days a week responding to requests and demands from OSHA, EPA, TCEQ, the Chemical Safety Board, news agencies, employees and many others.”
There were plenty of legal demands in those early days and weeks after the blasts. But Galbraith said the needs of those personally affected by the tragedy were an important focus as well.
“We tended to human needs, documented evidence, and answered many questions, all while under the watchful eyes of various governmental agencies with their often contradicting directives,” he said.
After the initial response, Galbraith was the lead local attorney handling matters related to the lawsuits and settlements. Those are not what he recalls the most.
“Folks were looking for ways to be of selfless service,” he said. “There was pain and devastation and that strips folks of considerations other than human, genuine and altruistic.
“I was blessed to work with dedicated, smart, professional, real human beings whose only goal was to make things better and learn from this so that it would never happen again.”
One of the attorneys Galbraith worked with on the legal challenges related to the case was famed corporate defense attorney Kenneth Tekell.
“Ten years ago my wife and I were sitting on our back patio reading about the BP explosion,” Tekell said. “We both wondering if I (at) 66 years of age, would get ‘the call.’ I had been representing energy companies for years on catastrophic cases, but never BP.”
Despite public claims by BP that it took responsibility for what happened, Tekell said he believes a jury wound have found different in many of the cases.
“The jurors of Galveston County are very fair with the demonized company that has been such an important and integral part of their lives,” Tekell said. “Without BP, Valero, Marathon and others the economy and quality of life would collapse.”
Tekell said he was “very disappointed” all of the significant cases were settled out of court. He believes many of the cases juries would have found no gross negligence on the part of BP and in some cases “no damages.”
“Putting heart and soul into BP's defense, and then knowing that the verdicts would have vindicated BP left me frustrated,” he said. “Such a wonderful opportunity lost for such a wonderful client.”
Not surprisingly Tony Buzbee, who represented 165 clients in the BP cases, disagrees with Tekell.
“I recall that BP admitted fault right away, but yet they continued to challenge the severity of the workers’ injuries,” Buzbee said. “When I took the deposition of (BP’s) second in command (John) Manzoni in Chicago, I knew that if the cases were tried, the verdict would be huge.
“After I convinced Judge (Sam) Kent to order the deposition of the CEO, John Brown, all my cases settled immediately.”
Buzbee said many of the workers he represented became “millionaires” as a result of the settlements.
“BP negatively impacted many lives from that event,” Buzbee said. “Despite the large payouts, many were never the same.
“The facts of the accident were some of the worse I have ever seen, and I have been involved as a lawyer in some of the largest catastrophes in the U.S. over the last 10 years.”
Robert Kwok was the first to file a wrongful death case in connection to the explosions on behalf of Lorena Cruz-Alexander, whose husband Glenn was also working in the refinery that day.
“Lorena was in the work trailer next to the explosion site,” said Kwok, who also represented 12 injured workers. “She was literally vaporized when the blast struck the trailer.”
Kwok also represented Rene Cardona, a plant worker survived, but the depression of seeing so many of his friends killed led to his suicide a few weeks after the explosion.
Kwok considers Cardona the “16th victim” of the explosion.
Despite the death and destruction from the blasts, Kwok believes industry still doesn’t grasp that such incidents shouldn’t happen.
“Big oil will not hesitate to put profits over worker safety,” he said. “I’ve worked on subsequent explosion cases where shortcuts and sloppy process resulted in death.”
Brent Coon, who was the attorney for Eva Rowe, established a war room in the Galveston Hilton with dozens of lawyers and legal assistants prepared to take on BP.
Coon, who also represents the United Steelworkers union in many cases, said his greatest disappointment from all that work, is that “BP and the oil industry got off.”
“We had hoped laws would be changed and standards within these refineries would improve,” Coon said. “I think we all know now that hasn’t happened.
“There are still people being injured or killed. The public sees these incidents and says, ‘well it is a dangerous job, and there is some risk.’ That shouldn’t be the case.
“If we let companies run our nuclear plants this way they’d all be shutdown because the public would demand it.”
The explosions cases wouldn’t be the last BP heard from Coon or Buzbee. Both would go on to represent clients in the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. And despite two jury verdicts in favor of BP, Buzbee is still fighting BP over a massive emissions event that happened at the refinery in 2010.
Susan Criss, the former district court judge who presided over the BP explosion cases agrees with Coon. Ten years later, the lessons haven’t been learned.
“I was asked to televise the trial so that those in the industry could learn to make refineries safer,” said Criss, who is now in private practice as an attorney. “I am afraid from what I have seen and read in the BP Deep Horizon case and current USW strike those lessons were lost.”