TEXAS CITY — BP was negligent in a 40-day emissions event at its Texas City refinery in 2010, but no one was harmed by the event, a Galveston County jury found.
All the jurors agreed that BP caused the event, but all but one decided not to award damages because they found that there was not enough evidence to support illness claims.
More than 45,000 people sued BP over the flaring event that happened in April and May three years ago. BP reported that more than 500,000 pounds of chemicals were released.
This trial, which started on Sept. 11, featured three of those 45,000-plus plaintiffs and was set to be a test trial that would set the benchmark for all the other cases.
The case was argued in Judge Lonnie Cox’s 56 District Court in Galveston.
“Today’s verdict affirms BP’s view that no one suffered any injury as a result of the flaring of the BP ultracracker flare during April and May 2010,” BP spokesman Scott Dean said.
“Armed with the knowledge gleaned from this case and this important jury verdict, the company will immediately begin to prepare for any additional proceedings involving other plaintiffs.”
The verdict surprised the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Tony Buzbee, but he vowed to fight some more.
“I’m surprised,” he said. “But I respect the juries. This was only the first one. We learned some things.
“We will gear up and try another in a couple of months.”
Buzbee said after his staff met with jurors, he is convinced “BP dodged a large bullet.”
Mary Knight, one of the three plaintiffs in the trial, arrived about an hour after the verdict was read.
“There’s nothing really to say,” she said as she left the courthouse.
From 6 to 3 plaintiffs
When the trial started there were four plaintiffs, Knight, Jerald Ford, Hugo Arieta and Libby Soriano. Arieta was removed from the case just before the jury began its deliberations.
There were actually six plaintiffs at one point. When setting up the test trial, Cox ordered each side to pick 100 plaintiffs. From that pool of 200, six would be picked for trial, with three coming from each side’s pool.
BP picked 100 plaintiffs, likely those that the company’s legal team thought were the weakest claims. Meanwhile, Buzbee picked 100 that represented what he considered to be the strongest cases.
Two plaintiffs dropped their cases before the trial began.
Panel not unanimous in monetary damages
Juror Bob Pierce, 67, of Galveston said that while the jury believed BP was negligent in allowing the flaring event to happen, there was no direct cause of illness among the plaintiffs.
“These people were already sick,” he said. “They were treated for other illnesses and not from the (event).”
Pierce, who is the police chief for the Port of Galveston Police Department, said aside from the unanimous decision on the finding of negligence, the panel was not unanimous on the other decisions. That included awarding monetary damages.
BP’s experts more believable
For juror Mindy Greenleaf, 57, of League City, BP’s experts proved to be more believable. The part-time school district office worker said she believed those experts when they said the levels of chemicals in the air were not concentrations that would cause harm.
‘We had no idea’
For Stephanie Beall, 47, a Galveston pharmacist, the case proved to be a crash course in toxicology, flare efficiency and air monitors.
She said she was shocked when told how many people had sued BP.
“We didn’t know that until about 30 minutes ago,” she said. “We had no idea we were determining the outcome of so many cases.”
All that information and expert testimony, she said, convinced her that no one could have been harmed by the release.
Lack of communication
While finding the emissions event didn’t make anyone ill, BP didn’t totally get off. The jury was unanimous in its ruling that the company was negligent.
Pierce said the fact BP kept the refinery going when a subunit malfunctioned was key to the negligence decision.
“That’s what created the whole event,” he said. “None of this would have happened if (the company) had not done that.”
Beall and Greenleaf said BP’s lack of communication to the city and public as to the extent of the flaring was another key reason the jury found BP negligent.
BP: We could’ve handled situation better
BP has since sold the refinery to Marathon Petroleum, which took over operations in February. BP does have a small chemical plant in the city.
Privately, BP officials admitted the trial showed BP could have handled the situation better and that in hindsight, shutting down the refinery while repairs were made would have been a better course. BP also promised city officials to better communicate such situations.
Texas City Emergency Management Coordinator Bruce Clawson testified during the trial that had he known what was going on, he would have pleaded with BP officials to stop. If that didn’t work, he said he would have gone public to expose the emissions event in hopes BP would shut down the refinery and stop flaring.