BP has been found guilty of “gross negligence” in the lead-up to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The New Orleans judge ruling could potentially cost BP billions more in compensation payments.
Judge Carl Barbier also found BP subcontractors Transocean and Halliburton “negligent”.
The 2010 oil spill was the worst in US history, and BP has set aside $43 billion to cover fines, legal settlements, and clean-up costs.
BP said in a statement that it “strongly disagrees” with the ruling and that it would appeal to a higher court.
“The law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case,” the company said.
BP shares fell 6% after the ruling was announced.
BP has been found guilty of gross negligence in the lead-up to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (photo AP)
Judge Carl Barbier said BP should shoulder 67% of the blame for the 2010 spill, with drilling rig owner Transocean responsible for 30% and cement company Halliburton responsible for 3%.
He ruled that BP will be “subject to enhanced civil penalties” due to its “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct”.
The ruling could quadruple the civil penalties that BP must pay as a result of the spill to an estimated $18 billion.
Under the US Clean Water Act, a ruling of negligence would have meant BP was liable to pay $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled; gross negligence increases the penalty to $4,300 per barrel.
In its most recent annual report, BP said it had set aside $3.5 billion for this case – an indication the firm had expected a more lenient ruling.
BP emphasized in its statement that it planned to argue during penalty proceedings for the lesser penalty.
In 2012, BP agreed to accept criminal responsibility for the disaster and agreed to pay $4.5 billion to the US government, thus settling its criminal liability in the spill.
Now, legal efforts have focused on the amount of civil penalties the firm must pay, both to businesses and individuals affected by the spill and to cover environmental clean-up costs.
Also in 2012, BP reached a $9.2 billion civil settlement and agreed to put $20 billion into a trust to pay to businesses and individuals.
However, legal proceedings have continued after BP said it had been forced to pay compensation to some businesses and individuals who were not directly affected.
It is not clear what impact Judge Carl Barbier’s ruling will have on the legal wrangling over that settlement fund.
A date to determine the total number of barrels of oil that were spilled in 2010 as well as a final civil penalty has not yet been announced.
US government experts have estimated a total of 4.2 million barrels spilled into the Gulf; BP has said the figure is closer to 2.45 million.
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BP has reported profits of $3.22 billion for 2014 Q1.
The figure is a fall of 23% on the $4.22 billion for the same period in 2013, but that quarter included a $12.5 billion gain from BP’s sale of its stake in Russian venture TNK-BP.
The oil giant’s latest profit figure, which strips out the effect of oil price movements, was ahead of forecasts.
BP has reported profits of $3.22 billion for 2014 Q1
BP also said it would increase its dividend by 8%.
It said it would pay 9.75 cents a share – the second dividend increase in six months.
BP said its first quarter results had been affected by write-offs in its exploration activity, as well as lower production, which it said would edge lower in the second quarter.
On Monday, BP said it would not sever its ties with Russian company Rosneft, in which it owns a 20% stake, despite Rosneft’s chief executive being the target of another round of US sanctions.
Igor Sechin is on a list of individuals thought to be in Vladimir Putin’s “inner circle”, whose assets will be blocked in the US, following Russia’s intervention in Crimea and Ukraine.
But BP said it would continue to work with Rosneft, despite the sanctions, which prevent US companies from engaging with those named.
Igor Sechin has also said sanctions imposed on him will not affect Rosneft.
BP is set to receive a record fine of between $3 billion and $5 billion to settle criminal charges related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It will be the biggest criminal penalty in US history.
The settlement with the Department of Justice involves BP pleading guilty to criminal charges.
It is thought that up to four BP staff will be arrested.
Details of the settlement are expected to be confirmed by the Washington-based Department of Justice later.
Earlier, BP said it was in “advanced discussions” with US agencies about settling criminal and other claims.
BP is set to receive a record fine of between $3 billion and $5 billion to settle criminal charges related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster
BP said that any deal would not include a range of other claims including individual and federal claims for damages under the Clean Water Act, and state claims for economic loss.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 workers and released millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.
The settlement is much bigger than the largest previous corporate criminal penalty assessed by the Department of Justice, the $1.2 billion fine imposed on drug maker Pfizer in 2009.
The oil giant has been selling assets worth billions of pounds to raise money to settle all claims. The company is expected to make a final payment of $860 million into the $20 billion Gulf of Mexico compensation fund by the end of the year.
BP has booked provisions of $38.1 billion to cover its liabilities from the incident, but the company has said the final cost remained highly uncertain.
BP has reached a $7.8 billion deal with the largest group of plaintiffs suing the company over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill.
It will benefit some 100,000 fishermen, local residents and clean-up workers whose livelihoods or health suffered.
BP has not admitted liability and still faces claims from the US and state governments, and drilling firms.
The rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 workers and leaking four million barrels of oil.
BP says it expects the money to come from a $20 billion compensation fund it had previously set aside.
“From the beginning, BP stepped up to meet our obligations to the communities in the Gulf Coast region, and we’ve worked hard to deliver on that commitment for nearly two years,” BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley said.
“The proposed settlement represents significant progress toward resolving issues from the Deepwater Horizon accident and contributing further to economic and environmental restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast.”
BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 workers and leaking four million barrels of oil
Lawyers for the plaintiffs’ group, the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, said the settlement “does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people”.
A trial in the case, due to begin on Monday, will now be delayed – for a second time – as a result of the deal, Judge Carl Barbier said.
The settlement will “likely result in a realignment of the parties,” he said.
The trial is now being adjourned “in order to allow the parties to reassess their respective positions,” Judge Barbier said.
The trial was due to resolve claims for damages and civil penalties arising from the spill.
Judge Barbier is an expert in maritime law and has consolidated hundreds of spill-related lawsuits into a single case.
The trial will probably still go ahead in order to apportion blame for the spill among BP and its fellow defendants.
Other companies involved include Transocean, who owned the rig, and Halliburton. All the companies are in dispute with each other over their liability to each other.
BP has so far paid out $7.5 billion in clean-up costs and compensation.
US President Barack Obama called the spill “the worst environmental disaster the nation has ever faced”.
It took 85 days to permanently stop the release of crude oil.