Gulf oil spill trial is delayed by federal judge

02 27, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier has delayed the start of the oil spill trial until March 5 in order to give BP and the plaintiffs steering committee more time to try to negotiate a settlement. BP, the leaseholder on the ill-fated Macondo well, and the committee of plaintiff attorneys pressing the case over the April 2010 explosion, sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig and subsequent 87-day oil spill have been negotiating hard in recent days, but had not been able to come to an agreement before the scheduled start of the trial Monday at 8 a.m.

In a joint statement issued by BP and the plaintiffs, the parties said: "This adjournment is intended to allow BP and the PSC more time to continue settlement discussions and attempt to reach an agreement. BP and the PSC are working to reach agreement to fairly compensate people and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill. There can be no assurance that these discussions will lead to a settlement agreement. A further announcement will be made as appropriate."

Barbier, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1998, had little to say about moving the trial date which had been on the books since fall 2010. "For reasons of judicial efficiency and to allow the parties to make further progress in their settlement discussions, the Court, on its own motion, issues the following Order: It is ordered that Phase I of the trial scheduled to commence February 27, 2012, is adjourned until Monday, March 5, 2012 at 8:00 am."

If the plaintiffs and BP reach a deal to compensate people harmed by the spill, it would remove a major piece of the litigation, but would not necessarily resolve the entire case. The plaintiffs committee is working on behalf of private parties in the litigation - people and businesses affected by the spill, such as condominium owners, coastal land owners, shrimpers and seafood processing businesses - but federal state and local governments have their own separate claims.

Meanwhile, most of the companies in the disaster have sued each other. That means that even if the plaintiffs and BP reached a deal -- and even if the U.S. Department of Justice and states affected by the disaster joined that deal -- it's still possible that the portion of the case involving the companies pointing fingers at each other could still go forward.

In recent weeks, the Justice Department, the states and BP had been negotiating to see if they could reach a deal over things like the cost of repairing environmental damage, the cost of the federal government and states responding to the spill, and the cost of economic damage, fines and penalties, but those negotiations broke down.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the trial delay. The offices of Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who jointly serve as co-coordinating counsel for state interests -- could not immediately be reached for comment.

In comments to financial analysts during BP's earnings conference call Feb. 7, BP Chief Executive Robert Dudley said that his company was interested in settling the case, but only at the right price. In comments to the London newspaper The Telegraph Sunday, Dudley said that he was hopeful that BP could do "some deals," but if not, the company was prepared for a long legal battle that could last into 2014 with appeals.