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BP in Court on Manslaughter Charges

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According to the Houston Chronicle, after 2 1/2 years since the deep-water Macondo well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, oil giant BP faced a U.S. judge Tuesday as it answered to manslaughter and other criminal charges. At a brief arraignment hearing before a federal judge, BP lawyer Mark Filip said the company's board had authorized him to enter a not guilty plea as a procedural matter, but the firm still intends to plead guilty at a later date. BP has agreed to pay $4.5 billion to settle the criminal charges and related Securities and Exchange Commission charges.

A status conference in which BP officials planned to meet with U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance to discuss its plans to plead guilty was postponed from Thursday to Dec. 11. A corporate officer likely will have to appear to enter BP's formal guilty plea. The company hasn't said who that might be. BP's plea deal requires it to pay $4 billion as a criminal penalty and $525 million to resolve Securities and Exchange Commission violations stemming from the disaster. The SEC has charged that BP understated the range of possible rates at which oil was flowing into the Gulf, which could have misled BP investors.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General John D. Buretta said at the hearing that if BP were to go to trial, it would face penalties as high as twice the gross financial gain or loss from its conduct for each of the 11 counts of manslaughter with which the company is charged. A Clean Water Act violation also would carry a penalty up to twice the resulting gross gain or loss. In addition, BP is charged with obstruction of Congress and violation of a migratory bird statute.

On a related legal matter, trial dates will be set today at a hearing for BP well-site leaders Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza and former executive David Rainey. Criminal charges against them were announced at the same time as the plea deal with BP. A judge also may set bond conditions and other restrictions on the defendants, but the workers don't face arrest ahead of time, their lawyers said. Lemelle reminded lawyers that he might have a conflict of interest because his wife owns stock in Halliburton - the cement contractor on the Macondo well. He has asked any parties that want him to recuse himself to state that request by Dec. 7. Federal rules require a trial be set within 70 days from the date an indictment is filed or a defendant first appears in court. And while the judge today might set a near-term trial date, defense lawyers are likely to argue the case is complex, which would mean even more postponements.

If you or someone you know has been injured in an oil rig explosion or an oil spill, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584.  

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