It has been nearly three years since a disastrous fire and explosion at BP’s Macondo oil platform released a toxic oil slick into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening Gulf beaches and bayous and kicking off an unprecedented cleanup and shore protection effort. Now, BP and its partners in the oil platform are facing a civil trial in a New Orleans federal courtroom, as Gulf Coast states and the U.S. government seek to recover the costs of the cleanup, compensation for economic and environmental damage, and likely additional penalties for negligence.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, naturally, is watching the story (“BP oil spill trial begins Monday in New Orleans almost three years after one of the worst spills in U.S. history”). Testimony in the trial could have huge implications for the multinational oil company, the paper points out: “More importantly for BP and the other companies, the first phase of the complex court case will focus on whether their actions leading up to the accident constitute gross negligence or willful misconduct, which would result in a four-fold increase in the billions of dollars of Clean Water Act penalties expected to be levied.”

Major players in the lawsuit — BP and its partners in the Macondo platform, Transocean and Halliburton — have already tried to deflect blame for the disaster onto each other in past criminal proceedings. That’s likely to continue in this trial, reports the Times-Picayune. And it makes all three of the defendants vulnerable, Roger Williams Law School Dean David Logan told the paper. Said Logan: "Negligence is being sloppy. Gross negligence is being guilty of cussedness. They're both not good things, but you sort of have this feeling about a heightened level of contempt for safety, a heightened level of fixation on the bottom-line, a heightened level of buck-passing. All those things are sometimes present in negligence, but in reckless or gross negligence, they almost all have to be present."

With billions at stake, BP has a strong incentive to settle the case. But the five states involved in the suit along with the federal government have disagreed on the terms of a possible deal, making the outcome hard to figure, reports The New York Times (“Ahead of Trial, Talk of a BP Settlement in 2010 Oil Spill,” by Barry Meier and Clifford Krauss).

The cluster of aggrieved parties in the case is large and disparate — and many, it appears, believe that their hand gets stronger as they go to trial. In online coverage (“BP spill trial told it 'put profits over safety'), the BBC quoted Garret Graves, the chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of the state of Louisiana: "BP can hire all the smiling faces they can find for their commercials, but in court it's a game-changer. First of all, they will have to start telling the truth. Second, let's just say that's not going to go over so well for BP. Even BP's money can't buy revisionist history."