US, BP agreement violated victims' rights - court

07 May 2008 22:57  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--A US appeals court ruled on Wednesday that a plea agreement signed by BP and the US Justice Department violated the rights of the victims of a refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas.

A lower court will now decide whether or not to cancel the agreement.

The US Justice Department and BP signed the agreement on 24 October and announced it the next day.

Under the agreement, BP agreed to pay $50m (€32m) in connection to the explosion, which killed 15 workers and injured 170 others.

BP and the US reached the agreement without first notifying the victims, according to court documents. In fact, the victims did not learn about the agreement until after it was signed by BP and the department.

The department defended its actions, saying that notifying all of the victims would not be practical, according to court documents. In addition, notification would result in media coverage, which would impair the plea agreements or prejudice the case if no plea was reached.

The victims requested that the court reject the plea agreement, arguing that the fine was too low, the probation period was too lenient, and it violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act.

At first, a lower court sided with the US and BP, according to court documents. The victims appealed the lower court's decision.

On Wednesday, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favour of the victims. It found that the plea agreement violated the Criminal Victims' Right Act.

All of the explosion's victims could be easily reached, contrary to what the department said, according to the appeals court. In fact, the victims numbered less than 200.

Moreover, the act provides the right to confer on a plea agreement before it is signed, the appeals court said.

"The victims should have been notified of the ongoing plea discussions and should have been allowed to communicate meaningfully with the government, personally or through counsel, before a deal was struck," the appeals court said.

The appeals court sent the agreement back to a lower court, which will decide whether to cancel it.

BP said it had no comment about the decision by the appeals court. The Department of Justice was not immediately available for comment.

In a statement, victims' lawyer David Perry said, “While we are gratified that the fifth circuit acknowledged that the US Attorney illegally violated the rights of the victims, we are shocked at the decision of the fifth circuit panel that the government can illegally violate the rights of criminal victims as specified in an act of congress with impunity."

He added, "These victims were first injured by BP illegal conduct, then again by the illegal actions of the U.S. Attorney in violating their victims rights under the congressional statute, then again by a plea bargain imposing no more than a slap on the wrist to BP, and now once again by a ruling effectively approving the illegal conduct of the US Attorney and negating an act of congress.”

($1 = €0.64)

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By: Al Greenwood
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