US prosecutors are assessing whether to pursue manslaughter charges against BP company managers over last year’s Gulf of Mexico fiasco that took the lives of 11 workers and created the largest environmental disaster in the country’s history.
Government officials are studying activities conducted by BP managers, both onshore and at the Deepwater Horizon rig, prior to last year’s explosion to determine charges of involuntary manslaughter or seaman’s manslaughter.
Additionally, statements made over the doomed well by the company’s leaders during last year’s congressional hearings are being investigated to determine a possible link of prior knowledge, according to people familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Bloomberg reports.
Although the oil giant has admitted to mistakes made in the run-up to the Macondo well blowout, the company denies any accusations of being “grossly negligent,” a charge that would add tens of billions of dollars to its liability over the catastrophe.
A civil lawsuit was filed by the Justice Department in December against BP and eight other defendants but has yet to file criminal charges, pending the ongoing investigation.
David Uhlmann, a former chief of the environmental crimes section at the Justice Department said he expects companies involved in the disaster would see seaman’s manslaughter charges, as a case against individual leaders is a more difficult case, according to Bloomberg.
Jane Barrett, law professor at the University of Maryland, said: “They typically don’t prosecute employees of large corporations,” Bloomberg notes, but individual charges could be significant for environmental safety cases, leading to a changed behavior. “You’ve got to prosecute the individuals in order to maximize, and not lose, the deterrent effect,” she added.
Under scrutiny are company e-mails and additional documents to help determine BP’s prior knowledge when company officials testified before Congress last June and whether pertinent information was withheld.
If found grossly negligent, the company could see maximum possible fines reaching to more than $21 billion. Furthermore, the company might then be faced with the challenge of forcing its partners in the well operation to pay their 35 percent portion of a total clean-up bill now estimated at $42 billion, Reuters reports.
Manslaughter charges could also open the doors to additional legal claims totaling billions more.
BP has declined comment, but amid the growing speculation, BP’s shares fell 2.2 percent on Tuesday, their steepest drop since January.