Immense Oil Spill Litigation Grinds On

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – During the monthly oil spill litigation status conference on Friday, attorneys addressed preservation of samples, a government motion on confidentiality of settlements and other matters. About 107,000 claimants have joined the litigation so far by filing short-form joinders.

     The Texas law firm Watts Guerra Craft is responsible for 44,510 of those filings, according to a document filed last week by BP counsel.
     No procedure for dismissing short-form joinder claims is in place for instances in which claimants take settlements from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, overseen for BP by Kenneth Feinberg. But attorneys for both sides said they are working out a procedure for dismissal.
     An estimated 463 cases are pending in the Eastern District of Louisiana multidistrict litigation. Each case has numerous plaintiffs; plaintiffs are believed to number about 130,000.
     Another 31 Deepwater Horizon-related lawsuits are pending in state courts, including three in Alabama, 10 in Texas, 12 in Louisiana, three in Florida, two in Mississippi and one in Georgia.
     Among those are 18 personal injury suits, 15 from the oil rig explosion, and three from oil spill response workers.
     One lawsuit, filed pro se in Louisiana, alleges that BP was negligent in failing to implement the plaintiff’s process for re-oxygenating Gulf waters in the region of the oil spill.
     BP attorney Don Haycraft said several depositions were taken in London in June. Haycraft said 130 depositions have been taken so far, including two on Friday, and 58 more are scheduled for July.
     Haycraft said BP has turned over 3 million pages of documents.
     U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the consolidated litigation, presided over the status conference.
     Andrew Langan, another attorney for BP, told Barbier that liaison counsel for both sides have worked out a framework for sorting out what may be thousands of contract disputes alleging that BP failed to honor contracts with fishermen and other ship owners and operators for helping clean up the oil in BP’s Vessels of Opportunity Program.
     Langan told the court the two sides will work together to select three focus cases for trial, with trial “wrapped up by September,” and mediation over by October.
     Langan said BP and the plaintiffs’ steering committee will work together to discuss whether mediation of those cases will be kept private.
Steve Herman, of the plaintiff liaison counsel, said the number of Vessel of Opportunity contract claimants may be in the thousands.
     The Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel on May 27 denied BP’s motion to create a state-level multidistrict litigation for the Texas state cases.
     Texas courts have set trail dates from Oct. 17 this year to April 16, 2012 in five personal injury cases brought by oil spill response workers.
     Also discussed during the status conference were pending motions, including a motion filed by BP on preservation of samples.
     Judge Barbier signed the order, which authorizes BP to “release those physical items” described in the order, so long as BP publishes “a list of all such items and provide[s] notice of its intent to release those items to all parties to this action … BP shall make all such items available for inspection by any party to this litigation at a secure location for a period of no fewer than five (5) business days following the notice to all parties that BP intends to release those items … BP shall cause photographs of all such items to be taken and made available to all parties to this litigation; and … in the event that a party to the litigation notifies BP in writing or by email that the party objects to confirming the non-applicability of BP’s preservation of evidence obligations as to a specific item, BP shall retain the item at a secure location pending resolution of the issue …” the order states.
     It continues: “‘Preserve’ shall mean to keep and not to alter any potentially relevant information as to its form, content or manner of filing.”
     Barbier said he probably would sign a motion from the United States on confidentiality of settlement negotiations. After the status conference, the judge did sign the order.
     Document 3201 in the court docket provides specifics of the confidentiality order: “A party receiving settlement communications under the order shall keep them confidential and not disclose them to persons or entities not a party to the negotiations for which the settlement communications are being exchanged. Each party who receives settlement communications shall take all necessary and appropriate measures to maintain the confidentiality of settlement communications. Settlement Communications are not discoverable or admissible in this MDL absent a court order issued after the party seeking discovery or admission of such communications has demonstrated good cause.”
     The next status conference is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 12 at 8:30 a.m.

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