Must Former BP CEO Lord Browne Testify in Texas City Explosion Case?Corporate Crime Reporter
October 17, 2007
Lord John Browne, where art thou?
Must you testify in the Texas City explosion case?
The Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow to determine whether the former CEO of BP must travel from London, England to Austin, Texas to give a deposition to lawyers representing the families of those injured in the March 2005 explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas.
The explosion killed 15 workers and seriously injured more than 170.
At issue is a narrow legal doctrine – the apex deposition doctrine – which in a nutshell says before deposing a high ranking corporate executive – an apex official – plaintiffs must show that the executive possessed relevant knowledge not otherwise available through less intrusive discovery.
But worker safety activists say something bigger is at stake tomorrow.
“The hearing is really about accountability,” said Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO. “Are we as a state going to require that corporations take responsibility for getting workers to their homes and families safely? Or will we stand by as the Supreme Court continues to erect shields protecting corporate leaders from that accountability?”
“Some 230 years ago a group of American patriots told King George to take a hike – they went on to create a democracy where no one was above the rule of law,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. “Now comes Lord Browne of London, England with a gang of 175 CEO’s behind him – many of whom sit atop the most dangerous and toxic manufacturing operations in Texas – to argue they too – like the King – should be above the law.”
McDonald said the case before the court tomorrow is bigger than Lord Browne & British Petroleum.
“Will the Texas Supreme Court will bestow additional legal protections to the CEOs of multinational corporations who, through misconduct kill their workers, injure our citizens and pollute our communities?” McDonald asked. “The issue pits public safety against corporate lawlessness. This horde of CEOs is before the court to fight against corporate accountability – against public safety. Their argument is quite simple, but shameful. It is that corporate CEOs are too important, too busy, too big, too rich, to submit to the laws of the people of Texas.”
By horde of CEOs, McDonald was referring to an amicus curiae brief filed by the oil and gas industry and by BP to protect CEOs from being “harassed” by plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“The litany of Browne’s activities upon which plaintiffs rely establish, at most, that Browne was doing the things a CEO does – not that he has unique or superior knowledge,” BP argues in its brief. “More fundamentally, the record is replete with evidence that other people had direct knowledge regarding the topics about which plaintiffs profess to need Browne’s testimony. Despite plaintiffs’ arguments otherwise, that others have knowledge of the events or activities is proof positive that this CEO does not have unique or superior knowledge.”
But the AFL’s Moeller says that with a regulatory system in shambles, the civil justice system is the only door left to injured workers seeking justice.
“Our regulatory system has failed,” Moeller said. “Because of a long-standing budgetary starvation diet and warped priorities, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will do a preventive inspection of a Texas workplace on the order of once every 100 years unless a complaint is filed.”
Texas has no state OSHA to pick up the slack.
“When someone dies, OSHA shows up and may impose fines that are for practical purposes regarded as a cost of doing business,” Moeller said. “In the case of the BP explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued an objective report that took BP’s management to task. But it was the civil justice system that invoked the most serious consequences for BP and laid bare the cold calculations BP made in trading worker safety for short-term profit.”
“Without access to the civil justice system, we would never know how corporate executives at the highest level of the company actively considered and rejected safety protocols that would have prevented the explosion. The victims of the blast have been able to publicize reams of information fully detailing a cost-benefit analysis that went horribly awry, to the tune of more than $1.5 billion to date.”
Moeller said that the legal action has produced evidence that the former CEO of BP, Lord John Browne, has relevant information that could bring out the truth.
“But the corporate community in Texas believes the higher principle in this case is suppression of the truth,” she said.