Courts Still Busy After Texas City Disaster

March 23 not only marked the 2-year anniversary of the BP Texas City explosion – which killed 15 workers and injured 180 others – but, under the statute of limitations, it also marked the last day that lawsuits related to the Texas City explosion could be filed against BP.

Company spokesman Neil Chapman told OccupationalHazards.com that by the time the 2-year anniversary passed, there was an uptick in the number of legal claims filed against BP.

Chapman noted that BP – which has set aside $1.6 billion for legal compensation for injuries and damage caused by the Texas City catastrophe – thus far has settled more than 1,000 legal claims. He estimated that between existing claims and new claims filed around the 2-year anniversary of Texas City, there will have been a total of 2,000 lawsuits filed against BP as a result of the refinery accident.

Chapman told OccupationalHazards.com that BP, in the immediate aftermath of the March 23, 2005, explosion, made it a priority to reach settlements with those seeking damages from the corporation “so that people could avoid having to drag this through the courts.”

“If they were seeking compensation, then it was our desire not to have to go to court in order for them to achieve that,” Chapman said.

According to Chapman, BP has reached settlements with all of the family members who lost loved ones at Texas City and with “many, many of those who were injured.”

Injury Toll Is Understated

Attorney Brent Coon, who is serving as lead counsel for the litigation against BP, said that the lawsuits not only seek compensation for injuries and deaths that occurred at the refinery on March 23, 2005, but also include claims for injuries that occurred “immediately adjacent to the facility” as well as claims for homes and businesses that had property damage as a result of the Texas City explosion.

“Windows were busted up to 4 miles away,” Coon told OccupationalHazards.com.

Coon asserted that the injury toll commonly reported in Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) investigation updates and reports – the agency's final report states that 180 people were hurt in the Texas City blast – only accounts for those who “were taken to the hospital by emergency personnel on the day of the incident.”

“There were hundreds of others that were injured but did not get medical treatment on site,” Coon said. “Instead they went to the doctors at various times thereafter, for things ranging from relatively minor injuries to things that turned out to be orthopedic injuries that required surgical intervention.”

A previously confidential BP internal report that Coon recently posted on a special Web site dedicated to the Texas City explosion – http://www.texascityexplosion.com – acknowledges that “for some victims, [the explosion] resulted in disfigurement and associated trauma for a lifetime.”

“And then a lot of people had long-term hearing loss,” Coon said. “You had ringing in your ears the day of the explosion. Many people thought that would go away, and for a lot of them, it didn't.

“I had one client who didn't go to the doctor for hearing loss the day of the incident, and the next day his ears were bleeding.”

Coon estimates that “there were probably several times larger a group of people with significant long-term injuries associated from the explosion than were initially reported.”

Plaintiffs Trying to Compel Browne to Be Deposed

While Coon is lead counsel for the litigation – which has been consolidated before Judge Susan Criss in the 212th Judicial District Court of Galveston, Texas – a number of other attorneys are involved. Coon said that his firm represented around 250 of the plaintiffs, “including some of the most severely injured and people that were killed in the trailers.”

“And we still have active ongoing litigation with many of these individuals,” Coon said. “The majority of our claims are still unsettled. We still have depositions occurring weekly as well as hearings.”

There are ongoing battles on other legal fronts. The plaintiffs' fight to compel former BP CEO John Browne – who resigned May 1 – to submit to a deposition has escalated to the Supreme Court of Texas.

CSB's final report on the Texas City disaster asserts that budget cuts mandated by Browne and top BP brass “seriously impacted safe operations at Texas City.” BP, however, has emphasized that mistakes and procedural deviations made by production-level employees ultimately caused the accident.

In a sworn affidavit – which also is posted on Coon's Web site – Browne distances himself from the Texas City accident, explaining that the refinery is owned by BP Products North America Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of BP PLC.

“I do not manage or authorize the day-to-day operation of BP Products North America Inc. or of the Texas City refinery,” Browne stated in the affidavit. “I do not have unique or superior knowledge of information, much less unique or superior personal knowledge, considering the allegations made in the lawsuits arising out of the March 23, 2005, accident” at BP Texas City.

Browne Resigned to Spare BP “Unnecessary Embarrassment”

Browne had planned to retire on July 31, and BP had been grooming Tony Hayward to be his successor. Browne, however, resigned May 1 amid allegations –published in British newspapers – that Browne allowed a former boyfriend to use BP computer and staff resources. With Browne's resignation, BP announced that Hayward immediately will take over as CEO.

Browne characterized the decision to resign as “a voluntary step [that] I am making to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and distraction to the company at this important time.”

“In my 41 years with BP I have kept my private life separate from my business life,” Browne said. “I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private. It is a matter of deep disappointment that a newspaper group has now decided that allegations about my personal life should be made public.

“Concerning the court documents disclosed [May 1], I wish to acknowledge that I did have a 4-year relationship with Jeff Chevalier, who has now chosen to tell his story to Associated Newspapers, publishers of The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Evening Standard.”

Browne added that Chevalier's “allegations are full of misleading and erroneous claims.”

“I deny categorically any allegations of improper conduct relating to BP,” Browne said.

According to CSB's Texas City report, Browne and the BP Board of Directors “did not exercise effective safety oversight.” Nevertheless, BP Chairman Peter Sutherland lauded Browne for his “enormous contribution to this great company.”

“[I]t is a tragedy that he should be compelled by his sense of honor to resign in these painful circumstances,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland also said the BP, at Browne's request, investigated Chevalier's allegations and “concluded that the allegations of misuse of company assets and resources were unfounded or insubstantive.”

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