NEW ORLEANS (NC) - Even if BP and plaintiffs' attorneys reach an oil-spill settlement this week, the Justice Department is expected to press ahead with the trial set to begin Monday, March 5, sources close to the settlement talks said, speaking not for attribution.
The first trial in the Deepwater Horizon disaster was scheduled to begin Monday, Feb. 27, but was postponed for a week so settlement talks could continue.
One informed source confirmed to Courthouse News that if BP and attorneys for the more than 110,000 plaintiffs hurt by the spill reach an agreement, the Department of Justice still has claims against BP arising from the April 20, 2010 oil spill. This source declined further comment.
U.S. Attorney Eric Holder told U.S. House lawmakers on Tuesday: "We are prepared to go to trial. We were ready to go to trial yesterday." Reuters reported that Holder added, "We'll see what happens," - apparently referring to the continuing settlement talks.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the massive litigation, wrote in his Sunday afternoon order postponing the trial that he was doing so "for reasons of judicial efficiency."
Barbier is overseeing the trial without a jury.
The trial involves claims of 116,000 hotel owners, restaurant owners, fishermen and seafood processors who seek compensation for lost revenue and personal injuries from the oil spill.
The federal government also has claims against BP and other defendants, including fines for Clean Water Act violations. Punitive damages are possible. Billions of dollars are at stake.
Bloomberg News Service has reported since Sunday that settlement talks center around the remaining $14 billion in the oil spill fund that BP set aside to pay claims through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).
At the request of President Obama, BP set aside $20 billion in August 2010 to pay people and businesses harmed by the spill. So far, $6.1 billion has been paid to 573,000 claimants, according to the GCCF website.
BP and plaintiff attorneys issued a joint statement on Sunday to confirm the trial's delay, saying there "can be no assurance that these discussions will lead to a settlement agreement."
Eleven people were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which injured 17 others and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Nearly 5 million barrels of oil were spilled in 87 days.
The broken well was finally capped July 15, 2010, leaving more than 650 miles of coastline soaked in oil.
The trial is the first of three phases, and will assign fault among the defendants for the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. This portion is expected to last into May.
The second phase will assess the defendants' nearly 3-month-long effort to cap the Macondo well.
Phase three will examine cleanup efforts.
BP is one of several defendants accused of negligence before the spill. Other defendants include Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon; Cameron International, the manufacturer of the failed blowout preventer; and Halliburton, which provided cement services to the rig.
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