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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.

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“It will be years, even decades, before we understand the true impacts of the spill," says Chris Canfield, a vice president of the National Audubon Society, in a statement. "The law requires BP to compensate the American people for all the damage that was done – for every smothered blade of marsh grass and for every oiled pelican – as well as for any long-term effects we may have not yet seen…. The outcome of this case must ensure that BP will be held fully accountable not only for the damages we see today, but also for any damages we will discover years from now.”

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In a way, the parties involved will be treading familiar ground.

Other court cases and congressional investigations have all expounded on the series of events that led to the massive explosion and fire that eventually sunk the Deepwater Horizon, crumpling a riser pipe of oil and disabling emergency shutoff valves at the wellhead, almost a mile below the Gulf's surface.

A nation watched in horror as underwater cameras attached to remotely controlled submersibles documented the underwater geyser of heavily pressurized crude oil, all of which led to massive fishery closures and a six-month shutdown of new drill sites in the Gulf.

While BP has claimed responsibility, the ultimate legal liability is not cut-and-dried as US District Court Judge Carl Barbier has made clear that the two other companies also may bear blame for what became a domino effect of missed signs and overlooked problems that finally led to the explosion.

Government lawyers, meanwhile, will bring evidence they say proves that the accident was ultimately avoidable, and that the companies carelessly and negligently cut corners as they hunted for profit.

"Gross negligence is a very high bar that BP believes cannot be met in this case," Rupert Bondy, BP's general counsel, said last week in a statement. "This was a tragic accident, resulting from multiple causes and involving multiple parties. We firmly believe we were not grossly negligent."

In the almost three years since the spill, authorities have struggled to pinpoint exact damages. People on the coast say oil from the spill continues to wash ashore during heavy storms. Some experts say higher than usual dolphin mortality rates may be tied to the spill, where those marine mammals may be signaling the poor health of the ecosystem.

Yet it's also hard to determine an exact cause of such events, given other pollution problems in the Gulf, including vast "dead zones" caused by an excess of upstream agricultural pollution.

"It's going to be very, very hard unless you can isolate a particular substance to work out the toxicology here," Dr. Moby Solangi, president of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., tells the Guardian newspaper.

Even if the trial gets going Monday, a settlement may still come depending on how the first few days go, and as lawyers on both sides get a sense of what the other side has up its sleeve. And BP has a history of such moves: All four trials that began in the aftermath of the 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City were eventually settled before the court could make a ruling.

"There are a number of issues involved and lots of money at stake, so it's easy to see how settlement talks could break down," says University of Michigan Law School professor David Uhlmann, the former chief of the Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes Section, in an e-mail to the Monitor. "Still, going to trial raises enormous risks for both sides."

RECOMMENDED: Sticky mess: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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