Should former BP chief testify?Court to decide if 'Lord John' can be questioned in Texas City explosion cases.
By Chuck Lindell
Friday, October 19, 2007
Texas courts have long acknowledged that corporate leaders deserve greater deference than most mortals, at least when it comes to demands on their time, and thus require greater protections when their companies are sued.
Lord John Browne, the former chief executive for energy giant BP PLC, hopes to use his corporate leader status to skip lawyers' questions about the 2005 refinery explosion that killed 15 Texas City workers and injured more than 170.
However, Browne is no longer a BP executive, which ledto a spirited hearing Thursday before the Texas Supreme Court in a case that pits blue-collar workers against the corporate elite.
"If a CEO personally cuts (a refinery's) budget — money needed to run the plant safely — and then is warned that it is compromising safety, he doesn't get a walk," Brent Coon, a lawyer for plaintiffs suing BP, said outside court. "The CEO, in some cases, has to be personally accountable. This is one of those cases."
Coon wants to question Browne about a 1999 order requiring BP refineries to cut 25 percent of their operating budgets and about corporate reports assessing safety risks at the Texas City refinery.
Browne, joined by industry groups whose members include 175 of the nation's leading chief executive officers, asked the court's nine justices to overrule two lower courts and bar Browne's testimony.
At issue is Texas' "apex deposition doctrine," which protects corporate leaders from being forced to give depositions intended to harass executives, disrupt management or pressure businesses to settle lawsuits.
To avoid exposing executives to questioning in dozens, perhaps hundreds of lawsuits, the doctrine requires opposing lawyers to show that the leader has "unique or superior knowledge" about the issue being litigated.
Forcing Browne to testify would violate the apex doctrine, and weaken its protection in future cases, because plaintiffs' lawyers failed to show that Browne held unique knowledge of the Texas City operations, lawyer Katherine Mackillop said.
But Mackillop was immediately met with questions, particularly from Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justice David Medina, asking why apex protection should apply to a former executive. Browne quit BP in May after admitting that he had lied to a British court in a separate matter.
"How long will this cloak of protection follow?" Medina asked.
Mackillop said logic dictates that the protection continues because the threat of continued legal harassment remains. "The value of a CEO deposition as a litigation trophy ... is not gone at all," she said.
Outside of court, labor and consumer groups rallied in favor of the Texas City plaintiffs.
Exempting Browne from questions would send a message that "corporate CEOs are too important, too busy, too rich, too big to submit to the laws of the people of Texas," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. "No individual is above the rule of law."
The Texas City explosion prompted several thousand lawsuits, ranging from claims of minor property damage to loss of life. Most cases have been settled, but several hundred remain to be litigated, Coon said.
The attempt to question Browne, which began more than a year ago, has not slowed any of the lawsuits, he said.
Justice Harriet O'Neill recused herself from the Browne case, offering no explanation.
She was replaced by 9th Appeals Court Judge David Gaultney when the eight remaining justices split 4-4 over whether to accept BP's appeal. The relief sought by BP — reversing lower court orders that Browne testify — required the approval of five justices to proceed.