Exclusive: BP gags in-house lawyer on oil spill lawsuits

LONDON Wed Nov 23, 2011 11:56am EST

A BP petrol station sign is seen at dawn in west London October 25, 2011.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

A BP petrol station sign is seen at dawn in west London October 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) - Oil giant BP has succeeded in preventing the public airing of comments from a senior in-house lawyer about lawsuits stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, as part of a legal claim of discrimination.

John Skipper told a British employment tribunal on Wednesday that he had been passed over for promotion because he was over 50 years of age, and that his case highlighted a culture of ageism at BP.

BP denies the accusation and said comments Skipper made in his witness statement, about the oil spill lawsuits, were irrelevant to his claims, and only intended to embarrass BP.

BP's lawyer John Bowers said the company has no wish to stifle evidence but he argued the tribunal was being used to reveal "confidential information about highly sensitive matters."

"We're concerned about the use of a witness statement in relation to purported age discrimination to ventilate the claimant's views on a major piece of litigation," he added.

The tribunal agreed that some comments in Skipper's witness statement, regarding BP's lawsuits, should be redacted before being made public and that questioning on these parts should be done in private.

While court filings are usually publicly available in the U.S., the British judicial system takes a different approach.

UK courts can grant gagging orders to companies seeking to prevent employees or others from publicizing information which may be injurious to their business. This can include information related to issues of public health or accusations of wrongdoing.

Last year a drilling rig on hire to BP exploded, killing 11 men, and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

BP faces damages claims from those impacted by the spill, potential fines from the U.S. government and shareholder lawsuits, worth tens of billions of dollars.

The damages claims will be heard by a judge in New Orleans in February.

Skipper said BP had consistently discriminated against employees on the basis of age.

"Between 2009 and 2011 of the 60 lawyers that left the company... 43 of those lawyers were over the age of 50," he told the tribunal.

He is also arguing that BP's system for appraising employees led to older employees being excluded from the high potential categories.

BP's lawyer said the company's generous pension entitlements might have been a factor in older lawyers' departures.

COMPULSORY RETIREMENT

In defense of his case, Skipper cited a speech given by former BP Chief Executive John Browne about ageism, in which he criticized the practice of compulsory retirement at the age of 60 years -- the age at which senior BP managers were expected to retire.

At the time, the speech was seen as part of Browne's battle to stay on beyond this age, a battle he lost after then-chairman Peter Sutherland insisted he could not extend his tenure.

Skipper also criticized the restructuring conducted under former Chief Executive Tony Hayward, which he said instituted a "banking industry philosophy of remuneration, recruitment and replacement of experienced personnel."

Compensation of up to 14 million pounds ($22 million) is being sought by Skipper as part of his age discrimination claim, while BP has suggested in a counter schedule of loss that around 1 million pounds would be payable if Skipper wins the case.