May 23, 2008
By BRAD HEM
GALVESTON — After the selection process digressed briefly into the nation's immigration debate, lawyers picked an eight-woman, four-man jury today for a civil trial arising from the 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery.
Although two previous juries have heard testimony, they didn't deliberate because the cases were settled during trial, as could the ones now before state District Judge Susan Criss.
BP has settled most of the 4,000 suits filed as a result of the blast, including those involving the 15 deaths and the most serious injuries. The company said it has paid or committed $2.1 billion to settle claims for injuries and deaths.
Cases have been batched together for trial, and the one under way now involves 10 blast victims and four of their spouses.
The ethnicity of the victims — seven are Latino, two are black and one is white — prompted plaintiffs' attorney Brent Coon to ask the nearly 200 potential jurors whether race might affect their opinions of the case. The fact that immigration is a hot-button political issue was also part of the reason for the questions, Coon said.
When he asked whether any of the panelists had opinions about the subject, hands went up.
"I just have an issue with people coming from other countries having the same rights as we do if they don't deserve them," said one woman.
Another asked whether the plaintiffs are U.S. citizens. Coon said he couldn't answer that specifically but said all are in the country legally, either as citizens or with valid work visas.
The woman said the plaintiffs should not be allowed access to the court system if they are not citizens, even if they are here legally.
One man spoke up to criticize immigration policy but said he could treat the plaintiffs fairly as long as they were "legal."
Coon also drew response from panelists when he said two of his clients speak English but have trouble understanding it.
A woman said it annoys her when people don't speak English in the United States. The blast was more than three years ago, she said, so anyone who was there and didn't speak English should have had time to learn.
But another prospect suggested the men might have been busy recovering from their injuries and tending to their families instead of attending language classes.
None of these panelists was selected for the jury, which comprises seven whites, three Hispanics and two blacks.
BP won't make an issue of plaintiffs' ethnicities or language skills, company lawyers told the group, but will question the extent of their injuries and challenge their quest of damages.
On Thursday, Coon said he will seek $950 million for the plaintiffs.
Unless the cases are settled in the meantime, testimony will begin Tuesday.
Many of the plaintiffs' allegations mirror those in the previous trials — that BP knew years before the blast that the plant was unsafe, but failed to invest in upgrades and improvements because of pressure to cut costs.
In opening statements for the two trials last year, BP lawyers painted plaintiffs as opportunistic, overstating minor injuries for a big payoff. The defense criticized plaintiffs for failing to see doctors until a year or more after the blast, some only after they had consulted with lawyers.
The explosion happened when a tower overfilled with hydrocarbons, which spewed out of a blowdown stack and created a vapor cloud that ignited. Fifteen people died and scores more were injured. BP's post-blast, $1 billion overhaul of the plant includes replacing such stacks with flares, which burn off excess vapors and liquid.