Few Hints on BP Fine as Oil Spill Trial Wraps Up

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The trial over how much BP will be fined over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill has ended, but a decision on the potential $13.7 billion fine could still be months away.
     This was the third phase of a trial to determine fines under the Clean Water Act after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 50 miles offshore from Louisiana on April 20, 2010, killing 11 people and dumping millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
     Trial wrapped up Monday afternoon after just two weeks, one week sooner than the time allotted after one of BP’s experts unexpectedly fell ill and could not testify.
     U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier denied BP’s requests to keep the trial open while attorneys scrambled to find a replacement expert.
     Mike Brock for BP, asked the judge to let the energy giant find another expert so both sides would have presented an equal number, but Sarah Himmelhoch, for the Department of Justice, said trials don’t work that way.
     Himmelhoch said the party at disadvantage over the ill expert witness was the U.S., not BP, because the circumstance meant the United States did not have the opportunity to cross-examine him on the four reports he had submitted to the court.
     “We are willing to live with that disadvantage, given that this is a circumstance beyond BP’s control,” Himmelhoch said. She added that leaving trial open for an unspecified period of time, as BP asked Barbier to do, “was prejudicial.”
     At the trial’s close, Judge Barbier said handling the case has been a pleasure.
     “One thing I have said previously and I will repeat it here, it has been a good experience for the court to preside over these trials because despite whatever else may be going on in this case outside the courtroom, you all have always acted very professionally and civilly, and I appreciate that. It’s been a pleasure to try these cases,” Barbier said.
     Tuesday morning, attorneys for BP filled two courtrooms at the Court of Appeals building on Camp Street in New Orleans for two separate hearings for matters related to the oil spill.
     In one, BP argued – again – for removal of the claims administrator in charge of handling claims of plaintiffs who elected to settle their claims with BP apart from the litigation in Barbier’s courtroom.
     Attorneys for BP have tried to have claims administrator Patrick Juneau removed for several months after initially choosing him in a joint effort with plaintiff attorneys.
     BP’s current argument for Juneau’s removal is that at the time of his appointment, BP didn’t realize he was working as a legal contractor to prepare oil spill-related legal documents for the state of Louisiana.
     Juneau’s prior work for the state represented a “conflict of interest,” an attorney for BP told the three-judge appeal court panel.
     Juneau and the terms of the 2012 settlement agreement were crafted by both sides, and lauded by both sides, until BP began arguing that Juneau was overly generous with claimants and was misinterpreting the terms of the agreement.
     Judge Barbier and the 5th Circuit have ruled previously that, under the terms of the agreement, claimants don’t have to prove they were directly harmed by the oil spill to receive money, only that in the months directly following the spill they made less money than in the months prior.
     The Supreme Court previously rejected similar claims from BP that it had set aside $8 billion for claims through the settlement agreement but now, because of the inefficiency of the process, has to pay much more.
     Last year, Judge Barbier ruled Juneau could not be removed by BP and that BP had helped appoint Juneau and should have known about any contracting he participated in with the State of Louisiana prior to being selected to oversee the claims process.
     A ruling on the matter is not expected anytime soon.

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