UPDATE 2-BP's max fine for spill cut by billions on court ruling
(Adds details on start of final phase of trial)
HOUSTON Jan 15 (Reuters) - BP Plc will face a maximum fine of $13.7 billion under the Clean Water Act for its Gulf of Mexico oil spill, several billion less than feared, after a judge found on Thursday the size of the spill was smaller than the U.S. government claimed.
The ruling by federal magistrate Carl Barbier put the size of the worst offshore spill in U.S. history in 2010 at 3.19 million barrels.
That was well below the government's estimate of 4.09 million barrels, which could have led to penalties of up to $17.6 billion.
U.S.-listed shares of BP rose about 1 percent to $36.20 in after-hours trading as investors worried about the size of potential penalties breathed a sigh of relief.
Under a "gross negligence" ruling Barbier issued in September, BP could be fined a statutory limit of up to $4,300 for each barrel spilled, though he has authority to assign lower penalties.
A simple "negligence" ruling, which BP sought, caps the maximum fine at $1,100 per barrel.
In his ruling on Thursday, Barbier said BP's response to the disaster was not grossly negligent, but stuck to his earlier opinion that it was grossly negligent leading up to the Macondo well blowout.
Penalties will be assigned after the third and final phase of the company's non-jury trial, which starts on Tuesday in New Orleans. BP lawyers are expected to argue for a small fine per barrel. Continuación...