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First BP Oil Spill Trial Opens Today

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Billions of dollars are at stake as the first civil trial to seek the causes and apportion the blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster begins today in Federal Court.

Click here to read Courthouse News' Environmental Law Review.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will preside over the bench trial. Barbier has been overseeing consolidated litigation springing from the thousands of claims filed after the April 20, 2010 oil rig explosion killed 11 oil workers and set off the worst oil spill in history.

This trial will be the first of at least two that will try to determine and apportion damages.

Part one will determine what caused the rig explosion.

Part two, to begin in September, will try to determine how much oil spilled during the 87-day catastrophe.

Total statutory damages are likely to be linked to the number of barrels spilled.

Most estimates put the total at 4.9 million barrels of oil (206 million gallons).

Last week the Justice Department agreed not to fine BP for the 810,000 barrels of oil the company was able to contain.

BP said in a statement last week that the government's estimate of oil spilled is "at least 20 percent overstated."

Fines for Clean Water Act violations and damages to national resources are expected to be in the billions of dollars.

How many billions will hinge on whether BP is found negligent or grossly negligent. Clean Water Act fines for negligence start at $1,100 per barrel and top out at $4,300 per barrel for gross negligence.

BP said in its statement that it will "vigorously defend" against allegations of gross negligence. It said the catastrophe stemmed "from multiple causes and involving multiple parties," and that the government will not be able to clear the "very high bar" to prove that BP was grossly negligent.

Over the weekend the Justice Department and Gulf states were considering offering BP a $16 billion settlement, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cited "people familiar with the discussions."

The deal would include Clean Water Act fines and fines for national resource damages, the Journal reported Sunday on its website.

In its own statement, issued Feb. 19, BP attorney Robert Bondy said: "We have always been open to settlements on reasonable terms, failing which we have always been prepared to defend our case at trial. Faced with demands that are excessive and not based on reality or the merits of the case, we are going to trial."

Rounding down the 810,000 barrels BP contained, and estimating the remaining spill at 4 million barrels, a fine of $1,100 per barrel would come to $4.4 billion. The top grossly negligent fine would be $17.2 billion. Those totals exclude damages to national resources.

If BP can prove that the government's estimate is 20 percent too large, Clean Water Act fines alone could range from about $3.5 billion to $13.7 billion.

Opening statements are expected to last all day. The trial is expected to last three months.

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