A federal jury in Texas on Friday ordered BP Plc
BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said the company was shocked and outraged by the verdict and would appeal.
We believe the evidence showed that BP did not cause harm to anyone on April 19, 2007, Chappell said in a statement. The verdict, and punitive damages award in particular, is utterly unjustified, improper and unsupportable.
They're like an ostrich with its head in the sand, said Tony Buzbee, the workers' attorney, of BP. They don't understand the meaning of responsibility.
The workers said they were exposed to the chemicals while repairing two refining units damaged in a plantwide 2005 shutdown prior to Hurricane Rita's strike on the Texas Coast.
They said BP had a poorly maintained workplace and lacked sufficient monitoring to detect toxic chemicals or warn workers of a release.
BP countered that the plant did not release a toxic substance, and the company had no control over the odor event that stemmed from another unidentified party's negligence.
Buzbee represents another 133 workers suing BP over the chemical release.
Originally his clients asked BP for $5,000 each in damages, Buzbee said, but went to trial when BP wouldn't budge from a $500 settlement offer to each worker.
BP declined to discuss the settlement negotiations.
The 475,000 barrel per day (bpd) plant, the third-largest in the United States, has a troubled and costly history.
An explosion at the refinery on March 23, 2005, killed 15 workers and injured 180 others, prompting extensive civil litigation and a federal criminal plea to violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.
BP paid more than $2 billion to settle hundreds of blast-related lawsuits and a $50 million fine to resolve the criminal case.
In addition, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has imposed record fines on BP for safety violations at the plant. In 2005, BP agreed to pay OSHA $21.4 million. This year the agency fined the company another $87.4 million for failing to live up to its 2005 agreement to fix safety violations at the refinery. and BP is contesting the 2009 fine.
BP is serving a three-year probation as part of the company's criminal penalty, and compliance with that 2005 agreement with OSHA is a key part of the probation.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is negotiating a settlement to a lawsuit that could cost BP more than $100 million for violations of pollution regulations at the refinery between 2005 and 2008.
(Additional reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Gary Hill)