NEW ORLEANS (CN) - With billions of dollars at stake, the trial over the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history was pushed back a week as settlement talks between BP and oil spill plaintiffs' attorneys continued.
The trial had been set to open today, Monday, but was rescheduled to begin in a week, on Monday, March 5.
Postponement is "for reasons of judicial efficiency and to allow the parties to make further progress in their settlement discussions," according to the order issued Sunday afternoon by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
Barbier will preside over the trial without a jury.
The trial involves claims of 116,000 plaintiffs who seek compensation for lost revenue and personal injuries from the oil spill. The federal government also has claims for damages against BP and the other defendants, including fines for Clean Water Act violations. Punitive damages are possible. Billions of dollars are at stake.
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 April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that injured 17 others and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Nearly 5 million gallons 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.
It was unclear Sunday if a settlement now would affect whether subsequent phases of the trial take place. In all, the three phases could last most of the year.
Trial analysts speculated that BP will want to settle now rather than face embarrassing evidence during trial.
Judge Barbier ruled in previous weeks that BP's extensive history of criminal charges and the maximum air and water pollution fines it paid cannot be brought into this phase of the trial because of time considerations.
Last week, a land trust that owns 35,000 acres of barrier lands, crucial to hurricane protection and affected by the oil spill, filed for summary judgment in Barbier's court, claims BP has withheld information about its oil spill cleanup and has not funded the whole response or cleaned up all the oil on its land.
The Edward Wisner Donation is a landholding trust whose 35,000 acres include 9 miles along the Gulf of Mexico in the area known as Fourchon Beach.
Fourchon beach is the closest stretch of coast to BP's ill-fated Macondo well. More than 600 oil platforms sit within a 40-mile radius, which produces roughly 17 percent of the U.S. domestic oil supply.
In addition to being rich in oil, Gulf waters bordering Fourchon Beach are among the most biologically diverse in the world.