BP's Browne hopes to avoid testimony as victims settle

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The Independent Online

The chief executive of BP, Lord Browne of Madingley, is likely to hear today whether he has escaped giving testimony in a US court over the explosion last year at the oil giant's Texas City refinery which killed 15 workers and injured more than 170.

A state district judge in Galveston, Texas is due to rule on whether Lord Browne must give a deposition in the case of Eva Rowe, whose parents, James and Linda Rowe, were killed in the blast in March 2005.

The Rowe couple were working inside a trailer that was flattened by the explosion. The case, to be heard by state district judge Susan Criss, is due to come to court next month. She has the discretion to decide what form the deposition should take. In an earlier federal court case, now settled, the judge said the deposition could be given by Lord Browne by telephone.

BP has so far set aside $1.2bn (£647m) to meet compensation claims resulting from the accident. It has settled the vast majority of the 1,000-plus claims filed, including all those brought by families of workers who were killed with the exception of the Rowes.

On Monday night, a lawyer representing more than 100 plaintiffs said he expected all the cases to be settled within 10 days. Tony Buzbee, the attorney in 52 federal cases and a further 59 pending in state court, said: "My clients are going to do great and I'm very happy."

BP says that the terms of all the proposed settlements are confidential. However, in some cases the compensation is said to run to several million dollars.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have argued that Lord Browne should be made to give evidence in court on the grounds that he had unique knowledge about the factors which contributed to the devastating explosion. The blast occurred after fault sensors failed to give a warning on the build-up of vapours which then ignited when part of the refinery was started up.

BP's lawyers argue that Ms Rowe's attorneys have reneged on an agreement which stipulated that Lord Browne would be required to give a deposition only if John Manzoni, BP's head of refining and marketing, referred questions in his evidence to his chief executive, which he did not do.

The Texas City explosion forced BP to undertake a root-and-branch overhaul of its safety policy in the US and also led to the appointment of a new president to oversee all of its US operations. Since the blast, BP's reputation has been further tarnished by leaks from pipelines in the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska and the illicit attempts by some of its traders to corner the US propane market.

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