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'Trial of the century': Can BP deflect blame for Gulf oil spill?

What once seemed likely – a settlement – now appears off the table as the US prepares to take BP to court in New Orleans on Monday, alleging the company exhibited 'gross negligence' in the lead-up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. At stake: $17 billion.

By Staff writer / February 23, 2013

In this 2010 photo, a shrimp boat is used to collect oil with booms in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La. The federal civil trial against the operators of the doomed Deepwater Horizon oil rig is set to begin Monday.

Eric Gay/AP

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ATLANTA

Seemingly as complex as the Gulf of Mexico itself, the federal civil trial against the operators of the doomed Deepwater Horizon oil rig is set to begin Monday – a high-dollar showdown pitting oil giant BP's cash wealth against the legacy of one of America's richest, yet most troubled wildlife habitats.

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The April 20, 2010, spill that began with an explosion that killed 11 rig workers and ended three months later with more than 200 million gallons of light crude spilled into the Gulf still resonates physically and psychologically in the five coastal states affected, even as BP, the chief speculator, has gone to massive lengths to clean up the mess while paying billions in damages to residents and communities along the sullied coastline.

But Monday's trial, which could take three months, is about answering the still-critical subjective question: Did BP exhibit "gross negligence" in its operation of the rig, causing the largest offshore oil spill in US history? If so, the company could be on the hook for as much as $17 billion in damages, after having already paid out $24 billion.

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"I thought that there would be considerable pressure on BP in particular to settle, since they are most likely to bear the heavy share of the damages and that they would have not looked forward to being on the front pages every day in an ongoing trial," says Edward Sherman, a disaster liability expert at Tulane University Law School, in New Orleans.

To be sure, the defendant side of the docket is complex, since the trial judge (there is no jury) will have to decide what percentage of responsibility each of the three major players – BP, the speculator; Transocean, the rig owner; and Halliburton, a key drilling consultant – will have to bear if found responsible.

But the plaintiff side, too, is rife with tension, particularly because joining federal lawyers and environmental groups are five separate affected states – Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas – all of which have differing thoughts on whether to settle the case quickly for maximum payout or push BP into a trial that will illuminate how deeply the spill affects not just wildlife, but everyone from fishermen to hotel owners, bartenders, and maids.

Part of the problem is that plaintiffs don't want to take a deal that's inadequate given lingering unknowns, including potential future problems from the spill.

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