BP, court trade barbs after sharply worded oil spill ruling

Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A Louisiana federal court lambasted BP for the massive 2010 oil spill in the U.S. Gulf Coast on Thursday, saying the incident was a combination of "gross negligence" and "reckless" conduct by the oil giant and other oil producers a judgement the company strongly rejected.

In a sharply worded ruling, the British oil company, Offshore Deepwater Drilling and Halliburton are "each liable under general maritime law for the blowout, explosion and oil spill," but Europe's second largest oil company shoulders the overwhelming part of the blame, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana determined.

The dense, 153-page decision argued BP ignored early signs that the well was on the verge of a catastrophe. The decision set the stage for substantially higher fines that could potentially cost BP more than vast sums it has already set aside.

The blowout at BP's Macondo well four years ago killed more than 10 people, spewing vast amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and transfixing the nation for weeks. Years later, the company has grappled with the fallout for years as it attempts to limit its liability in the court while rebuilding trust among investors and the general public.

For its part, BP pushed back against the court's assertion of gross negligence. In a stern statement of its own, the company vowed to appeal, saying that the finding "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."

The company added that "an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court. BP is reviewing the decision and will issue a further statement as soon as possible."

Travis Nichols, a spokesperson for environmental advocacy group Greenpeace, lauded the decision in an interview with CNBC. "It's good news for those directly affected by this disaster. Hopefully will make other companies like Chevron and Exxon think twice about their drilling," he said.

Feinberg: Real dispute over BP Gulf fund

Earlier this year, a separate court ruling determined BP would have to set aside $9.2 billion in settlement funds, a figure the company was fighting to reduce. The company also faces billions in additional fines under U.S. Clean Air Act environmental regulations.

In its statement, BP hinted that it would move to contain the punitive impact of any potential Clean Air fines.

"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," the company said. "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."

U.S. Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who led the investigation into the 2010 spill, said in a statement that BP "should be fully held to account, and should not be allowed to low-ball the size of its spill or take other actions that could reduce their financial liabilities for this disaster."

On Tuesday, Halliburton struck a $1.1 billion deal to settle claims stemming from the Deepwater fiasco.

In intraday trading, the company's shares tumbled by nearly 5 percent, its worst day in the markets in over 3 years.

--By CNBC's Javier E. David