BP oil spill case goes to court

A judicial panel ruled Tuesday that civil lawsuits related to the Gulf of Mexico spill will be heard in New Orleans and not Big Oil’s headquarters of Houston, Texas as requested by BP.

The panel said New Orleans was the most appropriate place because Louisiana is the “geographic and psychological center of gravity” for the litigation. The 77 civil cases already filed in the affected Gulf states of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida will be consolidated and handled by a single judge, Carl Barbier.

The decision could also affect more than 200 other spill-related cases filed as “tag-along actions,” the ruling said, adding that there could be more in the pipeline.

“This decision is welcome news for Louisiana and our people, who have been at the epicenter of this tragic event,” said Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

“Today?s ruling fittingly notes if there is a ‘geographic and psychological center of gravity’ when it comes to the oil spill, Louisiana is certainly closest to that point,” he said.

“Our people have been severely impacted by the spill, and ultimately, these hearings are about bringing justice to them so they can be made whole again.”

Lawyers for BP had argued for the cases to be consolidated in Houston, where it and other oil giants have their headquarters, saying it would be difficult to find a neutral judge in Louisiana.

But the panel rejected this suggestion and said Barbier had been chosen for his “distinguished career” and because he was already handling dozens of the cases filed in Louisiana’s eastern district.

“We have every confidence that he is well prepared to handle a litigation of this magnitude,” wrote panel chairman John Heyburn.

Heyburn noted that a federal appeals court recently rejected a request to require Barbier to recuse himself from one of the oil spill cases.

Two of the cases sent to Barbier are wrongful death lawsuits related to the deadly April 20 explosion aboard the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig which sparked the biggest maritime spill in history.

Some 4.1 million barrels of oil spewed into the sea before BP could fully cap the ruptured well 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface and 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana.

Hundreds of miles of fragile coastal wetlands and once-pristine beaches stretching from Texas to Florida were sullied and the region’s multi-billion dollar fishing and tourism industries were crippled.

Heyburn and the other panel members ruled that it made sense to have the wrongful death lawsuits consolidated with those seeking relief for economic damages.

Centralization “will eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pre-trial rulings, including rulings on class certification and other issues, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary,” Heyburn wrote.

“Centralization may also facilitate closer coordination with Kenneth Feinberg’s administration of the BP compensation fund.”

BP said Monday it had made its initial deposit of three billion dollars into the 20-billion-dollar US-managed fund to compensate victims of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The fund, to be paid into over four years at five billion dollars per year, will be overseen by Feinberg, a prominent lawyer who managed compensation claims by victims of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The ruling does not impact a lawsuit currently pending in a Texas court to limit damages, but the panel wrote that its “preliminary assessment is that the action should be included in the centralized proceedings.”

Source: AFP

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