NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The United States and Alabama say a trial to establish the liability of BP and other companies in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should not be delayed for nearly a year, until after a hearing on the proposed $7.8 billion settlement of private claims.
Uncle Sam and Alabama on Tuesday filed separate statements, opposing BP’s request to postpone the trial.
BP has asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the complex oil spill litigation, to postpone phase I of the trial until mid-January 2013.
Phase I was set to begin Feb. 27 this year, but was postponed indefinitely due to an eleventh-hour announcement by BP and plaintiff attorneys that a settlement had been reached for private-party economic and property damage claims that will affect as many as 125,000 people.
The settlement is pending Judge Barbier’s approval. It affects only private parties and will have no bearing on the interests of the U.S. government or the Gulf states in the litigation.
In separate court filings on Tuesday, the United States and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who coordinates state interests with Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell, said that BP’s request for a delay is unfair, and that trial should begin this summer.
Strange said that granting a delay could cause the trial to be pushed back as late as April 2015.
“As the Court can see, while adjourning a liability trial pending a fairness ruling may seem preferable in some (if not most) cases, in this case, BP could use such a ruling to avoid a liability trial against the governments for several years,” Strange’s document states. (Parentheses in original)
Strange proposed a trial date of July 16 this year.
Steven O’Rourke, senior attorney for the Department of Justice, wrote in his filing that “BP’s proposed partial resolution of private claims … should not allow it to impede trial and resolution of the broader public interests represented by the United States and the States.”
Uncle Sam said delaying this phase of the trial would hinder not just the litigants, but the entire Gulf Coast region.
“In sum, the trial delay sought by BP and other defendants will delay more than just a judicial proceeding; it will inevitably delay recovery and restoration for fragile Gulf resources, the interests of which can only be vindicated by actions of the United States and the various states affected by BP’s conduct. To prevent that wholly unnecessary and harmful result, we respectfully request and urge the Court to deny BP’s motion to delay trial,” the government’s document states.
BP said in an April court filing that delaying the trial until after a fairness hearing on the settlement would ensure that any “overlapping or parallel actions” would not distract the court from administering a settlement.
The proposed settlement is estimated to be $7.8 billion, but the ultimate payout could be higher or lower.
The United States said in its document that “BP has represented that it estimates the settlement at approximately $7.8 billion, a figure that coincides with the profit of $7.685 billion the company made in merely the final three months of 2011.”
BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010, killing 11 and unleashing the worst oil spill in history.
The government asks that the trial follow the plan that was established by the court before the settlement and delay: Phase I would focus on the defendants’ gross negligence and willful misconduct and breaches of federal regulations concerning the causes of BP’s oil spill.
Phase II would address flow rate and source control issues.
Later phases of the trial would establish Clean Water Act penalties to be paid and natural resource damages.