If every oil spill is different, they share one characteristic. Whatever the ending, a lawyer seems to be on the right side of it. It took almost two decades of legal wrangling for the residents of Alaska to see any compensation after the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, ran aground off the state's coast in 1989.
In the Exxon case, lawyers were charging right up until the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the size of the settlement in 2008. It was hard not to ponder how big the legal bills could become as the long-delayed trial into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill began in New Orleans.
The ongoing trial will decide who shoulders the blame for America's worst offshore oil spill and whether any of the defendants, including BP (LSE: BP.L - news) , were grossly negligent. Such a ruling, which BP vigorously denies, could see the UK company hit with almost $18bn (12bn pounds) in fines.
When Judge Carl Barbier entered courtoom 268 last week, he asked that any lawyers intending to represent one of the parties should introduce themselves. Forty-seven introductions later, proceedings moved on. The lengthy roll call of names only reinforced the sense of surprise that the question of who was to blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster had reached court at all. Almost 4,000 miles away in London, shareholders in BP had expected the company would settle with the US government and avoid becoming ensnared in a courtroom battle that could run for years.
But having begun, the first eight days of the trial have given the expensively assembled legal teams plenty of opportunity to prove their worth. Navigating the minutiae of deepwater drilling as though they were veterans of the industry, lawyers for the defendants sought to blame each other for the spill as those for the US government took aim at BP.
The task for all the lawyers is made harder because, sitting without a jury, Judge Barbier is the only audience that matters. Emotional appeals are unlikely to hold much sway with a man fully acquainted with all the evidence and who has been immersed in the case since it was given to him just weeks after BP managed to seal the Macondo well in July 2010.
It quickly became apparent that for the lawyers involved, the strategy for ultimate victory is measured in winning a series of tiny, almost imperceptible, skirmishes along the way.
So Mike Brock, the man spearheading BP's team in court, spent hours trying to undermine the credibility of Bob Bea, an expert on deepwater drilling and a witness for the prosecution. Mike Underhill, the prosecutor leading the government's charge, focused in detail on a conversation between two BP workers an hour before the blast on the Deepwater Horizon rig that he claims shows BP was grossly negligent.
The approach is forced on all sides because neither the Department of Justice, BP or any of the other defendants are expected to pull a 'smoking gun' out of the bag that tilts things decisively their way.
As the trial finishes its second week, legal experts say one huge unknown is how Judge Barbier is thinking about what would constitute evidence of gross negligence. Will prosecutors need to show a single instance of gross negligence on the part of BP or will repeated instances of negligence be enough? "The question is whether the judge is prepared to find gross negligence on aggregated evidence," explains David Uhlmann, the former top prosecutor of environmental crimes at the DoJ and now a professor of law at the University of Michigan.
Although fascinating to observe up close, few expect the legal combat to reveal any fundamentally new evidence about why the spill happened. The trial also comes on top of a series of investigations into the disaster that began with BP's own report in September 2010. A presidential commission released its own study in January 2011, which was followed by an investigation by the US Coast Guard and then another by the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering (Milan: ENG.MI - news) .
We know there are considerable risks for all sides in reaching the courtroom. For BP and its shareholders, Judge Barbier could find gross negligence and impose a penalty far higher than the $3.5bn the company has budgeted for. The government risks a ruling against their claim of gross negligence, which would likely leave them with a fine far smaller than they would have secured in an out of court settlement.
So it is a legitimate question to ask if a trial has any wider public value? The answer is an emphatic yes, and not just for the families of the eleven men killed. Even if it yields little fresh evidence about what happened on the night of April 20, 2010, it already has and will continue to provide a thorough public examination of what deepwater drilling is and the level of risk it carries. The considerable benefits of deepwater drilling to the US - measured in both jobs and oil production - are well known.
Given the world's growing thirst for oil and gas, the need to reach it in ever more challenging locations in deepwater will surely increase too. For example, the number of rigs dedicated to deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has already exceeded the tally at the time of the disaster and, according to analysts at Barclays (LSE: BARC.L - news) , is poised to expand rapidly over the next few years. A trial should add knowledge that will inform residents, politicians and regulators when making decisions on the proper pace for the industry to expand in Gulf waters.
The first fortnight of the trial has also been a sobering reminder of how risk can be collectively underestimated, whether through the pursuit of profit - as prosecutors claim in BP's case - or overconfidence. It is something that Wall Street and the global economy brutally discovered when the financial crisis erupted.
It maybe that the US government and BP reach a settlement in coming weeks. But while the trial goes on, we should learn what we can about an industry that navigates a tightrope between risk, the world's appetite for crude and the need to make a profit.