DOJ Slaps BP Hard with Negligence Charge

Tony Hayward finally got his life back, thanks for asking. According to recent profiles, the former beleaguered CEO of oil leader BP PLC is making the most of his moment away from the PR spotlight by spending some “me time” hanging out on yachts, starting new businesses and making massive distribution deals with oil-rich Middle Eastern nations like the ever-pleasant Iraq.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for his former company. The United States Department of Justice just hit BP with a “gross negligence” charge relating to the big Deepwater Horizon Gulf spill that happened way back in 2010 (remember those heady days of first-stage Bieber Fever and Tea Parties celebrating tri-corner hats?). The trial is set to begin in January, 2013. Everyone let out a collective groan.

This development is only the latest in a series of very large-scale PR challenges for BP, but it represents the most extreme position taken so far by the American government, whose lawyers are effectively throwing up their hands and saying “let’s do this.” The announcement all but erases the possibility of an out-of-court settlement—and it’s especially harsh considering recent speculation that oil still submerged from the spill washed ashore during Hurricane Isaac last week.

Try to determine the mindset of the government lawyer who wrote this line:

“The behavior, words and actions of these BP executives would not be tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall.” Ouch!

Those don’t read like the words of someone involved in “talks to settle civil and potential criminal liability,” do they? BP has predictably rejected the charge, so it looks like they’re digging in for a long, dirty legal feud.

What next for BP on the PR front? They’ve already made a widely publicized strategic shift in order to highlight their leadership in the oil arena (probably because their “beyond petroleum” clean-energy campaign felt more than a little false after the public saw photos of the millions of gallons of oil that leaked during the spill). What can they do now to downplay the many, many negative stories that will surely be written before they escape this legal tar pit?

If we had to guess about BP’s PR fortunes, we’d say that 2013 won’t be their best year. It’s a real shame that this sad fate had to befall such a great group of guys. We wish them the best of luck!