BP must pay more than $100 million in damages for exposing contract workers to toxic substances at its Texas City oil refinery in April 2007, a federal jury in Galveston said in the latest setback for the troubled plant.
The mammoth verdict arose out of a case brought by a BP contractor who claimed the British oil giant’s failure to maintain equipment and provide adequate safety controls led to a poisonous chemical release that sent more than 100 workers to area hospitals on the evening of April 19, 2007.
The company said it was “shocked and outraged” by the jury’s decision and vowed to appeal.
Though none of the 10 plaintiffs in the case suffered major long-term health effects from the incident, the jury decided to punish BP with one of the biggest penalties from the Galveston court.
The decision came as a sharp rebuke of a company that has been publicly called out many times for lax safety at the Texas City plant since a March 2005 blast there killed 15 workers and injured scores more.
“The reason I brought the case is because BP’s record is so horrific, and despite deaths and injuries that continue to occur, nothing’s changed,” said Anthony Buzbee, attorney for the plaintiffs.
BP has maintained there is no evidence that workers were exposed to toxic substances above permissible limits set by federal regulators, and no proof the company was at fault.
“The verdict, and punitive damages award in particular, is utterly unjustified, improper and unsupportable,” the company said in a statement.
The jury awarded the contract workers $10 million each in punitive damages, as well as actual damages ranging from $5,918 to $244,386 for medical expenses, mental anguish and lost income.
U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt had instructed the jury it could award punitive damages if plaintiffs proved BP “acted with gross negligence, with malice or willfulness or with callous and reckless indifference to the safety or rights of others.”
Aaron Wilson Garner, a contract worker with Houston’s HydroChem Industrial Services, first brought the suit against BP. He began in 2007 by pushing BP to release results of an internal investigation into the incident. Eventually, the case grew to include 143 plaintiffs from more than a dozen contracting companies.
Buzbee also represents the remaining 133 workers. He said he is preparing for their cases to move forward and is intent on making sure BP pays for the incident, since government regulators can only do so much.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration looked into the 2007 incident, but investigations were closed without any conclusions or notices of violations, according to online databases for the two agencies.
“They average $3 million a day in profits, and the most TCEQ can fine them for a release is $10,000,” Buzbee said. “If you hit them hard enough, you force them to pull their head out of the sand.”
Plaintiffs alleged they were exposed to carbon disulfide, a harmful compound that made them feel like they had flulike symptoms, while working on two refining units known as Pipestill 3B and CAT1.
Monitors workers wore to detect toxic releases did not go off because they are designed to track different fumes, Buzbee said.
Chuck Taylor, 30, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said he spent two nights in the hospital with chest pains and still had headaches, dizziness and fatigue after he was discharged. Now a part-time custodian for a different company, Taylor said he is glad the jury sent a message to BP.
Texas City refinery has been under scrutiny since the blast in 2005 and continues to pay for that disaster.
A division of the company paid a $50 million fine and pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act in connection with the blast.
And in October, OSHA proposed $87 million in fines against BP for failing to make safety upgrades required under a settlement agreement with the agency following the explosion. BP Products North America said it was formally contesting the citations.
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