Sunday September 17, 2:54 pm ET
By Juan A. Lozano, Associated Press Writer
First Civil Suits From BP Plant Explosion Set for Trial; Hundreds of Other Plaintiffs Settled
HOUSTON (AP) -- Three holdouts among hundreds of plaintiffs who sued BP PLC for injuries or deaths in the 2005 Texas City explosion are set for trial Monday as the British energy company is under fire for management lapses in Alaska and Texas.
While hundreds of other plaintiffs who lost relatives or were injured in the March 2005 blast have settled, the daughter of James and Linda Rowe and two contract employees injured have demanded a public hearing.
"Do we want to go to trial? You're damn right we want to go to trial," said Arturo Gonzalez, attorney for Eva Rowe. "You know why? Because the public needs to know how BP was taking care of business."
The blast killed 15 people, including the Rowes, and injured 170 others.
Jury selection was to begin Wednesday, with opening arguments set for Sept. 25. The trial was expected to last about five weeks.
Since the blast, BP has had several other smaller accidents at facilities in the Houston area, and has been explaining to Congress a maintenance lapse that caused extensive corrosion in BP PLC's pipelines on the North Slope in early August, leading to the partial shutdown of oil production in Prudhoe Bay.
BP spokesman Neil Chapman said the oil company is also ready for trial.
But "our focus all along has been on settling with those injured and with the families of those who died, without the need for litigation," he said.
A second claim scheduled for trial, by the family of Ryan Rodriguez, an engineer for contractor JE Merit, was settled last week.
Two injury cases also set to be heard include those of Calvin Bolds, 49, and Kenneth Grant, 48, two contract employees who were severely hurt while working near the blast site.
The Rowes, of Hornbeck, La., were killed when the trailers they were working in were leveled by the blast, which occurred when faulty sensors didn't warn of gathering vapors near a unit that boosts the level of octane in gasoline. The vapors ignited as the unit was starting up.
The afternoon explosion leveled the unit and workers' trailers, which were later deemed to have been too close to the unit.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, one of several agencies investigating the blast, concluded the isomerization unit had a history of problems and lacked equipment that could have prevented or minimized the accident.
The report also found that BP fostered bad management at the plant, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, and failed to fix problems.
BP has said management failures at the refinery contributed to the accident, but said such actions were not intentional.
"Our newly appointed BP America Chairman and President Bob Malone has been provided with the authority, the resources and the people to put into place whatever measures are needed to improve operational integrity in order to avoid such incidents happening again," Chapman said.
The company has said it would add $1 billion to the $6 billion already planned over the next four years to upgrade safety measures at its U.S. refineries.
Gonzalez said his case will focus on showing that BP, from managers at Texas City to corporate headquarters, was more concerned with profits than safety.
He said his office has reviewed nearly 8 million documents in the case.
"There are so many bad things in the documents we found about the safety culture of BP, about their staffing problems, about their budget cuts," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said Eva Rowe would only consider settling the case if BP agreed to set up a group that would monitor and regulate the state's petrochemical industry.
Chapman said the company will dispute some allegations in the lawsuits, but would not comment further.
Lonny Hoffman, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said the plaintiffs will have to show that BP's actions fell below the standard of care owed to workers and others injured or killed by the blast.
BP will not be able to rely on the defense that it didn't intentionally cause management failures at the plant that contributed to the accident, he said.
"They will have to show they fulfilled all of the things they should have been doing that a reasonable operator of such a facility should have done with regard to safety, maintenance," Hoffman said.
BP initially set aside $700 million to pay for lawsuit settlements but in July announced it had increased that figure to $1.2 billion, the same amount of damages attorneys for Eva Rowe are asking for in their case.
Chapman said BP has settled more than 500 cases. Gonzalez, who also helps coordinate all plaintiffs' cases, said there are between 350 and 500 cases that still haven't been resolved.
A second set of cases is scheduled for trial Nov. 7 while a third set is scheduled for Feb. 26