BP, the British oil giant fighting to restore its reputation in the US, has been scolded by a Texan judge for a publicity "stunt" that may have influenced potential jurors.
The company wrote to 900 members of the Texas City chambers of commerce, just days before the start of a trial that will decide if its negligence contributed to the deaths of 15 employees at a refinery in the city.
Judge Susan Criss, who will preside over jury selection tomorrow, said she could fine BP if it turns out that potential jurors had received the letter.
In it, BP's Texas City-based manager for government and public affairs, Neil Geary, set out how the company has improved safety since the March 2005 explosion and plans to spend a further $1bn (£524m) to upgrade facilities over the next five years.
Potential jurors assembled in Galveston, Texas, on Monday to receive a questionnaire that will decide their suitability to hear the case. Judge Criss added an extra question on whether they had received the letter from Mr Nealy.
"Your client decided at the last minute to pull a stunt," she told BP's lawyers, adding that she could fine the company an amount at her discretion if any potential jurors answered that they had seen the letter. If too many of the 200-plus pool had been influenced, BP could be billed for the costs of restarting the trial.
BP said that Mr Nealy's letter was a response to the public criticism the company had received in the wake of a government report and a television documentary last week on the refinery explosion. It was not an attempt at jury- tampering, the company insisted.
Opening arguments are expected to begin next Monday, and BP is braced for a string of embarrassing revelations.
Eva Rowe, the 21-year-old whose parents both died in the blast, is the only member of the victims' families who has refused to settle with BP. She says she is determined to expose the costs and the corners cut by BP in the lead-up to the accident, and to win safety assurances that will prevent such a tragedy happening again.
BP says it takes full responsibility for the accident and admitted mistakes, and it has apologised to the families of the dead and the 180 others injured. However, the company denies negligence.
Ms Rowe's lawyers plan to rely heavily on BP's own internal documents, including a report from two years before the explosion warning of the "potential for a major site incident". Another report, just months before the tragedy, revealed that the majority of employees could site safety concerns and incidents of poor equipment maintenance, which many blamed on budget cuts. One employee warned that "this place is set up for a catastrophic failure".
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