BP Oil Spill Lawsuits Head to New Orleans

More than 300 personal injury, wrongful death, economic loss and environmental damage lawsuits stemming from the BP oil spill have been consolidated in a multidistrict litigation in US District Court in New Orleans. The BP oil spill lawsuits will be presided over by U.S District Court Judge Carl J. Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana. The judge has already scheduled an initial conference for organizing the lawsuits in his court for September 17.

New Orleans is the largest city near the BP oil spill, and Louisiana was hardest hit by the disaster. Attorneys representing plaintiffs in the lawsuits had sought the New Orleans venue. For its part, BP had wanted the cases to be heard in Houston, where it has its US headquarters.

In a decision released yesterday designating New Orleans, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation cited Barbier’s “considerable” experience with multidistrict litigation. “Without discounting the spill’s effects on other states, if there is a geographic and psychological ‘center of gravity’ in this docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it,” the panel said.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation of the United States Courts was created in 1968. Since then, it has consolidated hundreds of thousands of lawsuits that involved high numbers of plaintiffs, including litigation over asbestos, breast implants and other matters. A multidistrict litigation allows all cases to be coordinated under one judge for pretrial litigation to avoid duplicative discovery, inconsistent rulings and to conserve the resources of the parties, witnesses and the court. When lawsuits are consolidated as a multidistrict litigation, each retains its own identity. If the multidistrict litigation process does not resolve the cases, they are transferred back to the court where they originated for trial.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Judge Barbier will also oversee Transocean Ltd.’s efforts to limit its liability. Transocean was the owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 men and spawning the worst oil spill in US history.

Some defendants had tried to keep Judge Barbier off oil spill lawsuits, the Journal said, because he sold off bonds in companies involved in the disaster about a month after cases came before him, but he refused to recuse himself. According to a Bloomberg report, at least six judges in the New Orleans district have recused themselves from such cases because of oil industry ties.

In other news, BP has suspended efforts to finish a relief well in the Gulf of Mexico due to rough weather. The relief well, which could be used to put a permanent underground plug in the stricken oil well, was 30 feet from intersecting it. According to The Wall Street Journal, the procedure, known as a bottom kill, would complement a mud and cement plug injected into the top of the well last week.

The National Hurricane Center has predicted that thunderstorms off southern Florida could strengthen in the next two days into a tropical disturbance that could head out over the Gulf. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the completion of the relief well could be delayed by two or three days. Crews will seal the relief well with a temporary plug until the weather clears, however, unlike in past tropical storms, workers will not be sent back to shore, the Journal said.

It still isn’t a certainty if BP will perform the bottom kill. According to the Journal, federal officials have pushed for the bottom kill, even though the top plug completed last week is holding. Allen said yesterday that testing still needs to be done on the well before a final decision on the bottom kill is made.

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