NEW ORLEANS (CN) – More than 200 attorneys filled three courtrooms Thursday for a pretrial conference to chart the course of litigation for hundreds of lawsuits involving the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. Presiding Judge Carl J. Barbier apologized that the courtroom was not large enough. “Unfortunately, this is the largest we have,” he said to the roomful of more than 150 attorneys, packed along walls to the back doors.
The location was changed last minute from Judge Barbier’s courtroom to larger courtroom in the Federal Courthouse, and two overspill rooms were opened before the hearing began.
“I’m not sure how many cases we already have,” Barbier said, explaining that some cases from other courts have yet to be transferred to the Eastern District of Louisiana.
“Certainly there are currently hundreds and there will be hundreds, if not thousands more, filed,” he said. “On top of all that, investigations by the federal government seeking criminal and civil damages are pending.”
In August, a federal panel of judges selected New Orleans as the venue for all Deepwater Horizon oil spill-related lawsuits. The panel also appointed Judge Barbier.
Thousands of claims are expected. The range is broad, both criminal and civil, from wrongful death to maritime personal injury, environmental devastation and economic loss.
The purpose of Thursday’s conference was, in part, to set terms for the suits, including composition of case management and timing of pleadings and discovery.
It was the first hearing on the litigation. Lawyers representing plaintiffs asked Judge Barbier to set earlier deadlines, while lawyers for BP and other defendants asked for more time to produce evidence.
Barbier extended the deadline for filing claims by several months, to April 20, the 1-year-anniversary of the oil rig explosion that killed 11, wounded 17 and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers also had concerns about stepping up the pace with regard to limitation of liability issues for the rig owner, Transocean Ltd.
“I just don’t think what you propose is possible,” Judge Barbier said. “One critical piece of evidence in this case is the blowout preventer, now sitting at a facility waiting for tests. Forensic testing is going to take several months.”
He set a tentative trial date of October 2011, to assign percentages of fault to the companies involved in the drilling of the BP-leased Macondo Prospect well that broke as Transocean’s rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded.
Some attorneys proposed the litigation be broken into specific, manageable groupings and subcategories.
Tom Heiden, an attorney for Nalco, which manufactures the dispersant Corexit, asked the judge to consider creating a specification for what he called “responder defendants.”
Companies such as Nalco, that were not directly responsible for the oil spill but are under heat for damages caused as a result of their products and services after the spill, should be grouped into a category separate from the big defendants, such as BP and Transocean, which had an active part in the catastrophic spill, Heiden said.
Heiden said Nalco’s dispersant was listed under the national contingency plan for oil spill mitigation, and the federal government directed its use.
“Responder defendants “stand here today as defendants because they answered that call for help after the explosion,” Heiden said.
K. Luan Tran, a Los Angeles attorney representing mostly Vietnamese and Cambodian fishermen, asked Judge Barbier to see to it that court orders and other documents are translated into Vietnamese, Cambodian and Spanish. Tran said that both BP and White House-appointed claims manager Kenneth Feinberg’s websites already provide documents in the three languages, in addition to English.
Toward the end of the hearing, to encourage settlement agreements, Judge Barbier said federal magistrate judges are specialists at settlement negotiations and are available any time.
Kerry Miller, an attorney for Transocean, said Transocean is “ready to settle at any time with anybody.”
The next status conference has been scheduled for Oct. 15.