Processing Magazine

CEO''s Role in Deadly Blast Case Limited

January 28, 2008
According to the Associated Press, former BP PLC chairman Lord John Browne cannot be questioned without limits about the oil giant''s deadly 2005 Texas City refinery accident, the Texas Supreme Court ruled recently.

The court left open the possibility that Browne could be deposed if the conditions for questioning are specified ahead of time, but an attorney for injured workers who have been trying to question Browne since 2006 doesn''t think he will be able to speak with Browne at all.

The workers'' attorneys have been trying to take Browne''s deposition -- sworn answers to questioning from opposing parties in a lawsuit. They argue he has unique knowledge about budget cuts and other company decisions they say contributed to equipment failures at the plant and created the conditions that caused the explosion.

The blast killed 15 workers and injured more than 170.

Separately, BP attorneys are to appear in Houston federal court next month when a judge is to decide whether to accept a plea agreement, including a proposed $50 million fine, as criminal punishment.

London-based BP has said Browne has no unique knowledge relevant to the case. Exxon Mobil Corp. and several business groups filed a brief in support of BP, arguing such depositions would hurt corporate management and would discourage companies from moving to Texas.

Browne stepped down in May.

At first, the workers'' attorneys and BP had agreed that Browne would answer questions only if he had unique knowledge about the accident. The agreement also said Browne could only be questioned for one hour, by telephone.

Then, in October 2006, state District Judge Susan Criss in Galveston set aside that agreement and ordered that Browne be deposed for as long as necessary and in any location.

BP appealed.

The court ruled that even if Browne had unique knowledge, BP could insist on the deposition being done under the restrictions of the agreement.

BP spokesman Neil Chapman said the company was informing Browne of the court''s decision.

In a joint statement, leaders of various labor and consumer groups expressed disappointment in the ruling.

The Supreme Court directed Criss to enforce the original agreement that would order an hourlong telephone deposition of Browne -- if he had unique knowledge.

Coon said he plans to seek the one-hour deposition but doesn''t believe it will occur.

The Supreme Court questioned whether workers'' attorneys had shown Browne has unique knowledge.

The explosion at the plant, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, occurred after a piece of equipment called a blowdown drum overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons.

The excess liquid and vapor hydrocarbons then were vented from the drum and ignited as the isomerization unit -- a device that boosts the octane in gasoline -- started. Alarms and gauges that were supposed to warn of the overfilled equipment did not work.