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The Guardian : Exxon backs BP in move to halt legal grilling

Andrew Clark in New York
Thursday February 22, 2007

BP has won the support of its rival Exxon Mobil in an effort to stave off a six-hour cross-examination by American lawyers of its chief executive, Lord Browne, which is due to take place in London tomorrow.

A judge in Texas has ordered Lord Browne to submit to questioning about his knowledge of safety cutbacks made before the explosion of BP’s Texas City oil refinery, which killed 15 people in 2005.

Brent Coon, a lawyer representing workers injured in the blast, is preparing to fly to London tonight to grill the chief executive who earns £3.3m a year. BP is vigorously opposing the all-day deposition, which is due to happen at a Covent Garden law firm, and has made a last-ditch plea to Texas’ supreme court to block it.

In a highly unusual show of solidarity, its plea has been supported by Exxon Mobil and by four US business lobbying organisations, which claim it would leave multinational bosses liable to scores of similar personal depositions and could deter companies from investing in Texas.
Exxon’s petition said if the questioning went ahead “executives would have to appear at countless depositions, given the thousands of lawsuits their companies have pending at any given time”.

It added: “Companies would be reluctant to shift their business operations to Texas if doing so meant those activities could subject senior officers – many of whom are located in other states and countries – to depositions.”

The petition, backed by the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Oil and Gas Association, was condemned yesterday by Mr Coon as an attempt to put political pressure on the state’s elected judges. “We have questions about quite why these organisations and associations would stick their nose into this litigation,” he said.

He told journalists that Texas’ predominantly Republican judiciary relied on campaign fundraising for re-election and were highly sensitive to suggestions that the state could suffer economically.

Lord Browne’s evidence is required for a case beginning on Monday brought by two men injured at Texas City: EJ Godeaux and Ted Kinnard. An earlier case brought by Eva Rowe, who lost both her parents at Texas City, was settled in November in a deal which involved BP donating $34m (£17.4m) to local charities.

Mr Coon wants to ask Lord Browne about a mandate from London in 1999 which required cost cuts of 25% at Texas City. He has also uncovered an internal BP email which claimed Lord Browne was personally monitoring safety statistics at Texas City in the years before the blast.

“This was the worst industrial catastrophe [in the US] occurring in 20 years and many things come out of this meriting the deposition of the chief executive,” said Mr Coon. BP’s safety culture has been savagely criticised both by US regulators and by an independent panel headed by the former secretary of state James Baker. Last month, BP announced that Lord Browne was retiring in July – 18 months earlier than planned.,,2018589,00.html

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