NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Billions of dollars are on the line when a federal trial opens Monday over the reams of litigation spawned by the worst offshore oil disaster in U.S. history, though those whose losses can't be repaid are hoping for something more elusive: justice for lost loved ones.
Sheryl Revette, whose husband, Dewey, was among the 11 killed when BP PLC's Macondo well blew out and triggered an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, doesn't have anything to gain financially from the trial. She wants an apology from the oil giant, something she says she hasn't received yet.
"I've never heard a word from them," said Revette, 48, of State Line, Mississippi. "But an apology isn't going to bring my husband back."
Barring a last-minute settlement, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will preside over a three-phase trial that could last the better part of a year. The first phase is designed to identify the causes of the deadly blowout and to assign percentages of fault to the companies involved in the ill-fated drilling project.
The trial may not yield major revelations about the causes of the disaster, but the outcome could bring much-needed relief for tens of thousands of people and businesses whose livelihoods were disrupted by the spill.
The decisions and actions that led to the explosion and spill already have been painstakingly investigated by the Coast Guard, federal regulators and a presidential commission. Their probes concluded BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cement contractor Halliburton Energy Services Inc. deserve to share the blame for a string of risky decisions that were designed to save time and money.
Revette, whose husband worked for Transocean, settled her claims against BP last year. But she and other family members plan to travel to New Orleans for the start of the trial, to make their presence felt.
"I feel like Dewey would want me to be there until the end, to see it through. That's who he was," she said, recalling that her husband once prided himself on being the last worker to leave the rig at the end of a hitch.
The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in water a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep the night of April 20, 2010, when an explosion and fire rocked the rig. It burned for two days before sinking. An estimated 206 million gallons (780 million liters) of oil spilled out of the BP-owned Macondo well over several months, fouling sandy beaches and coastal marshes and shutting vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing.
From the beginning of the disaster, many relatives of workers who died on the rig have felt that their tragic losses were unjustly overshadowed by corporate finger-pointing, legal wrangling, and concerns about the spill's environmental and economic impact along the Gulf Coast.
"Nobody cares about the 11 men who died," said Arleen Weise, whose 24-year-old son, Adam Weise, was killed in the blast. "Did everybody have to forget about those men?"
Weise, 58, of Yorktown, Texas, won't be attending the trial. She already has plenty of painful reminders. Adam's birthday was in January. April 20 will mark the two-year anniversary of the rig explosion. And her son's absence will be sorely felt when his older sister gets married this weekend.
"Going over there (to the trial) isn't going to change things one bit," she said. "My son is still gone."
Chris Jones, whose brother, Gordon, died on the rig, is an attorney. So is their father. Jones, whose family plans to drive in from Baton Rouge to attend the trial, said he trusts the court will ensure that the right companies and individuals are "taken to task" for their mistakes.
"Right now, it is a bunch of finger-pointing, and nobody is taking responsibility for anything," said Jones, whose 29-year-old brother was a mud engineer for BP contractor M-I Swaco and is survived by a wife and two young sons.
Jones said BP has blanketed the airwaves with ads touting the billions of dollars it already has spent on spill cleanup, yet the company hasn't had the "common decency" to apologize to his family.
"Instead, they want everybody to think everything is fine," Jones said. "They want this to be about money and nothing else. It is going to be about money, but I don't think it's going to work out well for them."
A BP spokesman said the company has expressed its sympathies to the victims' families from the outset. In a press release less than a week after the explosion, former BP CEO Tony Hayward said: "We owe a lot to everyone who works on offshore facilities around the world and no words can express the sorrow and pain when such a tragic incident happens."
The massive scope of the case — a maze of claims and counterclaims between the companies, federal and state governments and plaintiffs' attorneys — has elicited comparisons to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.
Roughly 340 plaintiffs' lawyers have worked on the case. BP has spent millions of dollars on experts and law firms. More than 300 depositions have been taken. Millions of pages of legal briefs have been filed. One Justice Department lawyer said it would take him 210 years to read all the pages submitted into the record if he read 1,000 pages a day.
Barbier, a former president of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association and appointee of President Bill Clinton, has a reputation for speedy but fair trials. He will hear and decide the case without a jury. Each trial phase is expected to last two to three months, with breaks in between. Even if all parties settle their claims before or during the trial, it could take several months for claims to be paid.
A payout can't come soon enough for Gulf Coast fishermen and oystermen. Mike Voisin, an owner of an oyster processing and sales business southwest of New Orleans, said few if any claims by oyster farmers have been resolved through the $20 billion compensation fund that BP created shortly after the spill.
"We need to get people back to work. It won't happen until this case gets out of the way," he said. "Playing the claims game and working with lawyers is not our profession, but it's what we've had to do."
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau in New Orleans contributed to this report.