An unlikely sequel to the disaster movie that was the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago opened in a New Orleans courtroom yesterday with top billing going to two famous faces from the world of Hollywood, Kevin Costner and Stephen Baldwin.
Baldwin alleges that he and a friend were wrongfully kept out of the loop when they sold shares in Ocean Therapy Solutions, a company headed by Costner, just at the moment it was sealing a highly lucrative deal to sell BP centrifuge equipment designed to separate oil from water.
The trial, which is expected to last two weeks barring an 11th-hour out-of-court settlement, began with jury selection and an admonition to prospective jurors from US District Judge Martin Feldman that they should not be swayed by the movie-star status of the main protagonists.
"Celebrity has no place in this courtroom or in any of the issues that need to be resolved by the jury in this trial," he said.
Costner and Baldwin have been ordered by the judge to attend court every day while the trial continues "because of the seriousness of the claims and issues raised by the parties".
Baldwin and his friend, Spyridon Contogouris, are seeking US$21m ($28 million) in damages from Costner and his co-defendants.
They allege that in June 2010, when they sold their stakes in Ocean Therapy for US$1.4 million and US$500,000 respectively, they had no idea the company had only days earlier negotiated a deal with BP to supply it with 32 centrifuges. The order was worth US$52 million and a few of the devices were deployed by the oil giant on barges a month later as part of its attempt to contain the Macondo spill.
The lawsuit goes further to allege that an US$18 million downpayment made by BP to the company for the centrifuges allowed it, in turn, to buy the shares from the defendants.
"The source of the funds to buy plaintiffs' interest was never disclosed to them and OTS funds were secretly and improperly converted to effect the purchase," a document containing a summary of the plaintiffs' case asserted.
A filing by Costner, however, insists that he had not attended a meeting at which Baldwin and Contogouris agreed to sell their shares and indeed was disappointed when he later found out.
"Not only did Costner not know that plaintiffs were negotiating to sell their OTS interests, he was surprised and offended by the idea that Contogouris and Baldwin would walk away from OTS with almost US$2 million in cash despite having invested no money in the company, and at a time when a contract with BP was uncertain to materialise," a court filing for Costner and his co-defendants said.
Costner's attorney, Wayne Lee, said his client played no role in Baldwin and Contogouris' decision to sell their shares.
"Kevin Costner is here for one reason and one reason only: He's famous," Lee said.
Plaintiffs' attorney James Cobb accused Costner and Smith of spinning a web of lies that cheated his clients out of millions of dollars, telling the eight jurors that the case is about deception "fuelled by power and greed."
Judge Feldman asked the pool of jurors if any of them might feel swayed by their familiarity with both Costner and Baldwin because of the actors' careers on the silver screen. None of the jurors said they did.
The long list of films under the belt of Costner includes JFK, the Oliver Stone-directed story of the former President John F Kennedy's assassination, part of which was set in New Orleans.