NEW ORLEANS (CN) – In a win for BP, the federal judge overseeing the consolidated oil spill litigation has postponed the first oil spill trial until 2013.
The minute entry from a closed-door meeting Thursday in U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier’s Chambers states: “the court ordered that Phase 1 of the Limitation and Liability trial shall be re-set for Jan. 14, 2013.”
The Phase I trial was set to begin Feb. 27 this year, but was postponed indefinitely upon an eleventh-hour announcement by BP and plaintiff attorneys that they had reached a settlement for private-parties’ economic and property damage claims that will affect as many as 125,000 people.
BP asked the court in April to postpone phase I of the trial until mid-January 2013, until after a “fairness hearing” on the proposed settlement.
The settlement affects only private parties and will have no bearing on the interests of the federal government or the Gulf Coast states.
The United States and Alabama this week asked the court not to postpone the trial beyond this summer.
In separate court filings on Tuesday, the United States and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who coordinates state interests with Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell.
Strange said that granting a delay could cause the trial to be pushed back as late as April 2015.
“BP could use such a ruling to avoid a liability trial against the governments for several years,” Strange wrote.
The United States said in its opposition to the delay, “the trial delay sought by BP and other defendants will delay more than just a judicial proceeding; it will inevitably delay recovery and restoration for fragile Gulf resources, the interests of which can only be vindicated by actions of the United States and the various states affected by BP’s conduct. To prevent that wholly unnecessary and harmful result, we respectfully request and urge the Court to deny BP’s motion to delay trial.”
In a separate win for BP, Judge Barbier on Wednesday approved the proposed settlement between it and the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The settlement includes up to $600 million in attorney fees.
Severalparties have objected to the plan, including Florida, Mississippi, shrimp processors, fisheries and Halliburton, which worked on the oil well that blew out 2 years ago, killing 11 and unleashing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Attorney Daniel Becnel Jr., of Reserve, La., who is not a member of the plaintiff steering committee, and who represents 3,000 clients who suffer medical problems from the oil spill, filed an objection to the proposed settlement this week.
Becnel said in a telephone interview that by setting $600 million as private attorney fees, BP and the plaintiff steering committee have ensured the money can’t be touched down the line by an appeals court or anyone else, and added that $600 million is an exorbitant fee in a case that involves no risk.
Becnel said he believes the money is meant to help BP persuade the plaintiff steering committee to rush the settlement along before more evidence of the spill’s ultimate environmental and health toll comes to light.
“Why would you take a slam-dunk trial that you’ve spent a year preparing for” and settle? Becnel asked.
The settlement will not be final until after the fairness hearing, set for Nov. 8.
But Barbier’s preliminary approval paves the way for claims payments under the settlement and payment of the $600 million in attorneys’ fees to begin.