With billions of dollars at stake, a trial to figure out how much more BP and other companies should pay for the nation's worst offshore oil spill began Monday with the federal government saying the oil giant put profits ahead of safety and deserves most of the blame for the 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hundreds of attorneys have worked on the case, generating roughly 90 million pages of documents, logging nearly 9,000 docket entries and taking more than 300 depositions from witnesses who could testify at trial.
"In terms of sheer dollar amounts and public attention, this is one of the most complex and massive disputes ever faced by the courts," said Fordham University law professor Howard Erichson, an expert in complex litigation.
One of the biggest questions facing the judge is whether BP acted with gross negligence.
Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a minimum of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil; the fines nearly quadruple to about $4,300 a barrel for companies found grossly negligent, meaning BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion.
The judge plans to hold the trial in at least two phases. The first phase, which could last three months, is designed to determine what caused the blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved. The second phase will try to determine how much crude spilled into the Gulf.
BP argues the government's estimate of how much oil spewed from the wellmore than 200 million gallonsis inflated by at least 20 percent.
The spill fouled marshes, killed wildlife and closed vast areas to fishing. Scientists warn that the disaster's full effect on the Gulf food chain may not be known for years. But they have reported dying coral reefs and fish afflicted with lesions and illnesses that might be oil-related.