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BP lawyers scolded for using ‘college term paper’ line spacing tricks

A federal judge scolded BP lawyers Monday for tinkering with their line spacing to make a legal brief meet a strict page limit. 'Counsel's tactic would not be appropriate for a college term paper,' the judge told BP lawyers in a ruling.

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    BP CEO Bob Dudley pauses during a media conference at BP headquarters in London. BP lawyers have come under fire from a US judge for tinkering with line-spacing to fit extra content into a legal brief.
    Alastair Grant/AP/File
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The federal judge in the BP oil spill case has already ruled the oil giant was “grossly negligent” in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Monday, that same judge chastised BP lawyers, rather literally, in between the lines.

The BP legal team had tried to reduce the line spacing in a brief to sneak six extra pages in without exceeding the page limit. US District Court Judge Carl Barbier (a double-spacing purist? a stickler for formatting?) was unimpressed.

“Counsel's tactic would not be appropriate for a college term paper,” Judge Barbier wrote in a ruling Monday. “It certainly is not appropriate here.”

Judge Barbier appears to have studied the issue in depth, scathing BP’s legal team with a harsh, surprisingly well-researched rebuke.

“BP's counsel filed a brief that, at first blush, appeared just within the 35-page limit. A closer study reveals that BP's counsel abused the page limit by reducing the line spacing to slightly less than double-spaced,” Judge Barbier wrote. “As a result, BP exceeded the (already enlarged) page limit by roughly six pages.”

Is this all about a judge’s passion for consistent and strict document formatting? Probably not. Judge Barbier’s castigation of BP lawyers is likely a reaction to BP consistently bending the rules in court, observers say.

“The subtext seems to be Judge Barbier saying, ‘Look, every time I give you an inch you take a mile, and I'm tired of it,’” says Montré Carodine, University of Alabama School of Law Professor and former clerk for Judge Barbier, in an interview with NPR.

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The 2010 blowout at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and created an environmental disaster still affecting the region’s wildlife today. The US government has estimated that the spill loosed 4.2 million barrels of oil – roughly 176 million gallons – into the Gulf of Mexico, but BP puts that figure lower.

Much of the debate surrounding the disaster’s fallout is who should take most of the blame – BP, or the various contractors that worked on the rig?  

Earlier this month, Judge Barbier ruled that BP was mostly to blame, and “grossly negligent” in the spill, opening BP up to $18 billion in civil fines. “These instances of negligence taken together evince an extreme deviation from the standard of care and a conscious disregard of known risks,” Judge Barbier wrote in his early September ruling.

The company strongly disagreed with the ruling, saying the law clearly shows that “proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case.”  

“BP believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court,” it added in a statement.

In January, Judge Barbier's court will hear arguments determining how much BP may have to pay in Clean Water Act penalties.

This time around, BP lawyers might be better off leaving the line-spacing alone: “Any future briefs using similar tactics will be struck,” Judge Barbier wrote.

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