NEW ORLEANS – A former BP rig engineer was found not guilty Thursday on a charge that his negligence in interpreting a critical test contributed to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Robert Kaluza was a rig supervisor aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig when it exploded, killing 11 workers and resulting in millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf and fouling wetlands and beaches.
Kaluza was charged with a single count of violating the federal Clean Water Act and could have faced up to a year in prison if convicted. Jurors got the case Thursday afternoon and reached a verdict after less than two hours of deliberation.
"We're just pleased and thankful," defense attorney Shaun Clarke said as he walked out of court with Kaluza, 65, and co-counsel David Gerger. A smiling Kaluza declined comment. He had jubilantly hugged his lawyers immediately after the verdict was read.
Prosecutors told jurors Kaluza and a former co-defendant, Donald Vidrine, botched a crucial pressure test indicating oil and gas could be flowing from deep beneath the sea floor into BP's Macondo well, which was thought to be securely plugged with cement and mud.
"All of the red flags in front of him should have told him that it was a bad test," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Winters told jurors after showing them images of smoke billowing from the flaming, crippled rig, followed by pictures of oil-coated coastal land.
Clarke cast Kaluza as a scapegoat. He said federal prosecutors failed to make their case.
Clarke said Vidrine, who has pleaded guilty in the case, was the rig leader who declared the test a success — after Kaluza's watch aboard the rig had ended.
"The Macondo well was under control during every single second of his watch," Clarke said.
Clarke also said other rig workers with 97 years of combined experience in drilling agreed with Vidrine. Clarke disputed Winters' statement that the test was a simple one, saying there were no government standards for the test the prosecution is citing.
"There is no dispute that others were negligent," prosecutor Jennifer Saulino argued later. But Kaluza shared in the negligence that caused the disaster and he should be held criminally accountable for the pollution, she said, as a video of oil flooding from the sea floor flashed on a screen behind her.
Gerger argued that failure of multiple, redundant safety systems and equipment caused the explosion, not the interpretation of a test. He pointed to rig crew members failing to notice a "kick" or influx of oil and gas into the rig hours ahead of the spill, a captain's failure to timely operate an emergency system that would have disconnected the well from the rig ahead of the explosion and the failure of a crucial device known as a "blowout preventer" that had not been property certified.
Kaluza once faced more serious charges. He and Vidrine had been indicted on federal manslaughter and "seaman's manslaughter" charges — 22 counts apiece — stemming from the 11 deaths on the rig. But the seaman's manslaughter counts were thrown out by the courts and government prosecutors late last year backed away from the remaining manslaughter counts.
Prosecutors have recommended no prison time and 10 months of probation for Vidrine. He is set for sentencing in April.
He testified for the prosecution early in the trial, telling jurors that Kaluza never gave him information that prosecutors say was critical. The information dealt with a test meant to show whether two cement plugs, other structures and drilling mud below the ocean floor could stand up to the pressure of oil and gas farther down.
Kaluza's was the latest in a series of criminal prosecutions arising from the disaster.
In terms of individual criminal responsibility for the spill, only four mostly lower-ranking BP employees faced charges, and those cases unraveled before skeptical jurors and judges — resulting in plea bargains for lesser offenses or acquittal.
The government did secure a landmark criminal settlement and record civil penalties against the corporation, which BP said would cost it billions of dollars.
Former BP executive David Rainey was acquitted last June of manipulating calculations to match a far-too-low estimate of the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf. A judge dismissed a related charge, that Rainey obstructed a congressional investigation of the spill.
Former BP engineer Kurt Mix was convicted of obstruction of justice in 2013 for deleting a string of text messages, but allegations of juror misconduct led a judge to order a new trial, and Mix ultimately cut a deal with prosecutors, who agreed to drop the obstruction charge punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Mix pleaded guilty last month to a lesser charge and was sentenced to six months of probation. He made clear in a later statement that the plea was to end his legal ordeal and that he felt he had been charged unjustly.