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Houston Chronicle: Judge: Mailing may taint BP jury pool

The jurist says if another panel is needed, company must pick up bill

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 7, 2006, 3:23AM

GALVESTON – A mailing from a BP manager to 900 members of the Texas City Chamber of Commerce could have influenced potential jurors in a civil trial it faces for the deadly 2005 explosion at its Texas City plant, the judge in the case said Monday.

State District Judge Susan Criss said in court she will compare a list of people who received the mailing, which she called “nonsense,” to those tapped for jury service and fine BP an amount at her discretion for any potential jurors who received it.

If enough names show up on both lists to require a new jury pool, BP would have to pay for that, Criss said.

The mailing, dated Oct. 31 and addressed “Dear BP Texas City Neighbor,” highlighted actions the company has taken to improve safety in the last 18 months. It says BP will spend more than $1 billion at the refinery over the next five years to refurbish and rebuild key equipment.

“Your client decided at the last minute to pull a stunt,” Criss told the refinery’s legal team in court Monday after 242 potential jurors had filled out 110-question surveys that lawyers will use to pick the panel later this week.

BP spokesman Neil Chapman said the mailing, sent by Neil Geary, BP’s Texas City-based manager for government and public affairs, was a response to increased media coverage, including a recent CBS 60 Minutes episode, and was intended to keep community leaders informed about changes at the plant since the explosion that killed 15 people and injured scores more.

‘Course of business’

It was not an attempt to influence potential jurors, Chapman said.

“The communication was the normal course of business,” he said.

Efforts to reach Geary Monday night were unsuccessful.

Earlier in court, he told Criss he sent the mailer without getting company approval first, though a company attorney had reviewed it for accuracy, Criss said.

Criss’ scolding ended what had been a busy afternoon in the first civil trial from the explosion.

BP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate injured workers and families of those killed, but 22-year-old Eva Rowe from Hornbeck, La., is seeking $1.2 billion for the deaths of her parents, James and Linda Rowe. Both worked at the plant.

Focus on safety measures

Rowe’s attorneys have said she wants to hold the company responsible by showing they failed to improve safety at the refinery before the explosion.

Some of the 242 potential jurors gasped and groaned when James Galbraith, a lawyer for BP, introduced himself and the name of his client.

Until then, the crowd had not known what kind of trial it might decide.

They groaned again when Arthur Gonzales, a lawyer for Rowe, told them the trial could last up to five weeks.

Jurors spent most of the afternoon filling out a 12-page questionnaire, which had a special first question added by Criss after she saw Geary’s mailing over the weekend.

Instead of asking for the potential juror’s name, the first question asked whether they had gotten any mail, e-mail, fliers or other communication from Rowe, BP, the attorneys or anyone else regarding the case.

Other questions

Other questions asked for basic background information — education, marital status, employment and more.

But most of the questionnaire zoomed in on potential biases among the jury pool:

•”Based on what you have read and heard, would you work at BP Texas City Refinery?”
•”Would your decision change if an expert said it was safe?”
•”Would your decision change if the government said it was safe?”
•”Would you say you have strong negative or positive attitudes toward large oil companies?”
•”Do you know anyone who was involved in any way or injured in any way in the March 2005 explosion at the BP plant in Texas City?”
•”How closely have you followed media coverage and other reports related to the events surrounding the March 2005 explosion … ?”

Remark overheard

Criss ordered panel members not to talk to reporters, but one woman was overheard remarking to another potential juror on their way out the door, “That was a heck of a questionnaire. I think they asked the same question four different ways.”

Because of today’s elections and the length of the questionnaire, trial proceedings won’t resume until Thursday, when lawyers will begin picking a 12-member jury and four alternates. Open arguments are scheduled for Monday.

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