By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS – Each day, a team of 70 lawyers gathers in a New Orleans office suite to pore over a mountain of documents, study depositions and formulate argument.
The attorneys, representing condominium owners, oyster fishermen, hoteliers, beach towns and others who claim to have been hurt by last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are gearing up for one of the biggest legal showdowns in U.S. history.
More than 120,000 claimants have signed on to the federal lawsuit against BP and other energy firms, claiming financial and personal loss after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. The explosion on April 20, 2010, killed 11 workers and gushed more than 155 million gallons of crude into the Gulf, making it the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
The legal proceedings, which begin in February, are expected to eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
“There hasn’t been a case quite as immediately large and as complex with so many moving parts,” says James Roy, a Lafayette, La., attorney and one of the lead plaintiff attorneys.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, the New Orleans federal judge overseeing the case, has set Feb. 27 as the date of the first issue to be tried: Who was most responsible for the explosion aboard the rig? BP, which leased the rig, will be a defendant along with Transocean, the rig’s owner; Halliburton, responsible for the casing cement; and other companies.
The number of claimants joining the lawsuit is nearly as many as those who have chosen to take final claims payments through a $20 billion compensation fund set up by BP.
Last Monday, more than 150 protesters marched in front of the Washington offices of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which is distributing the fund, calling on the group to pay all outstanding claims.
Many claimants applied for a payout rather than risk a drawn-out legal battle. Despite early concerns that lawyers for BP and other companies would drag out litigation for years, legal action for the spill is speeding through courts at an unprecedented pace, Roy says.
“This case is moving like a rocket ship,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine anything anyone can do to upset that trial date.”
At the February trial, Barbier will hear expert witnesses to determine the varying degrees of fault, Roy says. Other trials will follow, including ones to determine the environmental impact of the spill and how much companies should pay in damages.
BP officials so far have shouldered much of the blame for the spill but have repeatedly pointed to others’ involvement in the disaster. In a statement, BP said, “We are preparing to try the case scheduled to begin in February, where we will present evidence, consistent with all official investigations, that the Deepwater Horizon accident was the result of multiple causes, involving multiple parties.”
Transocean hopes to show that BP is responsible. Lou Colasuonno, a spokesman, calls the upcoming trial the “mother of all litigation” but says officials at the company are comfortable with their legal position. Halliburton declined to comment for this article.
A key question Barbier faces is whether any of the companies were “grossly negligent,” a label that could expose the companies to tens of billions of dollars in damages, says Blaine LeCesne, an associate professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Damages could potentially eclipse last decade’s massive tobacco settlements, which totaled more than $200 billion, LeCesne says.
“It’s not about whether BP is negligent. They know they’re negligent,” LeCesne says. “They’re desperately trying to avoid that ‘gross negligence’ label.”
The case is so big and includes so many parties that Barbier appointed an executive committee — led by Roy and New Orleans attorney Stephen Herman — and a steering committee of 15 lawyers to coordinate the plaintiffs’ efforts. Those attorneys, along with another 200 across the Gulf Coast, have amassed more than 226 depositions, 70 expert reports and 25 million pages of documents, he says. The more than 400 lawsuits filed against the companies after the spill have been merged into one “master suit,” Herman says.
The proceedings are moving much more quickly than those after the Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska in 1989, LeCesne says.
That legal wrangling stretched for nearly a decade and ended in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling slashing damages against the oil giant from $2.5 billion to $500 million, he says.
The trials also could set an important precedent for how companies compensate victims in future spills, says Robert Wiygul, a Mississippi environmental attorney representing about 1,000 claimants in the proceedings. “In 10 or 15 years, we’re going to look back at this and say, ‘Did this really work? Did we compensate people fairly?’ ” he says. “This is a real-life laboratory.”