BP Gross Negligence Ruling Could Cost Billions of Dollars More in Fines

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BP PLC (NYSE: BP) looks to be having its worst trading day of 2014, and perhaps much further back. A ruling in the Deepwater Horizon disaster could imply that BP’s fine tally is set to grow. Here is why: A federal judge ruled that BP was grossly negligent in the explosion and spill that followed.

At this point it is literally impossible to know what this means financially, particularly with BP immediately saying that it plans to appeal the ruling. The first potential answer is that this could generate billions of dollars in additional costs for the Macondo well explosion and subsequent spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP indicated that a finite number of barrels has yet to be determined, but it outlined that the statutory maximum penalty is $1,100 per barrel under a simple negligence scenario and $4,300 per barrel under a gross negligence or willful misconduct scenario.

BP’s ADRs were down 4.9% at $45.37 in mid-afternoon trading on Thursday, but even before 2 p.m. Eastern Time there had been a whopping 41.4 million shares that had traded hands. Typical volume for a day is closer to 4 million shares. A 10-times volume spike in a company the size of BP is far from the norm.

There was a worse drop in London, but not with as crazy of a volume spike. The shares closed down 5.9% at £455 on more than 89 million ordinary shares in London. Its average volume in London is closer to 20 million shares.

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BP’s SEC filing stated:

BP strongly disagrees with the decision issued today by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and will immediately appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

BP believes that the finding that it was grossly negligent with respect to the accident and that its activities at the Macondo well amounted to willful misconduct is not supported by the evidence at trial. The law is clear 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.

The Court has not yet ruled on the number of barrels spilled and no penalty has yet been determined. The District Court will hold additional proceedings, which are currently scheduled to begin in January 2015, to consider the application of statutory penalty factors in assessing a per-barrel Clean Water Act penalty. The Clean Water Act requires the District Court to consider a number of factors in determining an appropriate penalty. The statutory maximum penalty is $1,100 per barrel where the court finds simple negligence and $4,300 per barrel where the court finds gross negligence or willful misconduct. During the penalty proceedings, BP will seek to show that its conduct merits a penalty that is less than the applicable maximum after application of the statutory factors.

BP is reviewing the decision and will issue a further statement as soon as possible.