British Petroleum’s Criminal Liability for the Gulf Oil Spill

bp gulf oil spill

Now that British Petroleum’s deep water well in the Gulf of Mexico is no longer spewing oil, at least for the time being, and hopefully soon a relief well will be established, the public’s attention will turn more to issue of punishing the petroleum conglomerate. BP is a fabulously wealthy entity and naturally people will want to see individuals suffer consequences for the devastation that its operation caused.

Recently, private lawyers have brought lawsuits against BP alleging that it engaged in organized criminal activity. One lawsuit claims that BP’s role in the 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, a pipeline leak in Alaska, along with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, demonstrate a pattern of wrongdoing that amounts to criminal activity.

It should be borne in mind, however, that a vast gulf exists between bringing a civil lawsuit designed to force a settlement against a company and the government being able to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that any individual in BP intentionally broke the law.

Although the organized criminal activity statute, commonly known as RICO, permits the prosecutions of individuals who did not commit any discrete criminal act, but oversaw an organization that committed criminal acts, it is nevertheless difficult to prove that executives such as Hayward knew that his organization was engaged in criminality.

Notably, one of the operators on the Deepwater Horizon on the night it exploded, has invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate himself when called to testify before Congress. I suspect that individuals working on that particular well had serious concerns about the safety of the operation and knew corners were being cut. I will not be surprised if further investigation results in the prosecution of these individuals. I will be surprised, however, if the government can show BP executives in Houston or London were aware of these specific problems.

The investigation will be extensive and the possibility of a smoking gun implicating BP executives with criminal responsibility certainly exists. However, I predict some low level well operators will face criminal prosecution, and as far as BP and its top executives, the public will have to be satisfied with massive fines and compensation to those more or less directly harmed by the oil spill.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.