When the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened the chair of the Trustees panel said simply: “lawyers not yet born will work on this one”.
His prediction essentially came true as the spill lawsuits grinded backwards and forwards through the courts as Exxon did everything in its power to delay and derail the legal process.
As the focus of BP’s disaster shifts momentarily from the ocean to the courtroom it looks likely that lawyers not yet born look set to work on this one too. And BP looks set to have lost round one.
The oil giant had been trying to get the legal action against it moved to Texas, where any jury and judge would be seen as much more sympathetic.
But the case will now be heard in New Orleans after the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation argued that the “geographic and psychological ‘center of gravity’” lay in the City.
“Without discounting the spill’s effects on other states, if there is a geographic and psychological ‘center of gravity’ in this docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it,” said the Judicial Panel.
So now over 300 lawsuits, including wrongful-death claims by families of the 11 workers killed in the original explosion, will be heard by New Orleans-based U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.
It looks set to be one of the biggest legal cases in U.S. history.
However many more cases could soon be filed. Texas lawyer Brent Coon called the 300 filed so far as the “front end of a wave”, as he estimates tens of thousands of people have retained a lawyer but not sued.
“The majority of the cases have not entered the court system,” said Coon, who represents hundreds of fishermen, restaurant owners, retailers and others who have sued BP or its partners. He estimates that the total number of claims “already far exceeds $20 billion.”
Some injured workers, out-of-work fishermen and others may also try a twin track approach: simultaneously pursuing a lawsuit while seeking a claim under the BP fund. If they receive money from the fund, however, they would probably have to drop legal action.
Although Judge Carl Barbier has already come under pressure after it was revealed he once held bonds issued by Transocean and Halliburton two companies caught up in the disaster, the decision to hold the hearings in New Orleans is being seen as a good news for the plaintiffs.
John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the selection of New Orleans was a “victory for plaintiffs”. He said: “The decision is not surprising to me because the eastern district of Louisiana is the logical centre of gravity.”
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal also said: “This decision is welcome news for Louisiana and our people, who have been at the epicenter of this tragic event. Today’s ruling fittingly notes if there is a ‘geographic and psychological center of gravity’ when it comes to the oil spill, Louisiana is certainly closest to that point”.
He added: “Our people have been severely impacted by the spill, and ultimately, these hearings are about bringing justice to them so they can be made whole again.”
The bad news for BP is that the criminal investigation into the spill is also centered in New Orleans. A team led by senior Justice Department environmental crimes litigator Howard Stewart has rented about 22,000 square feet of office space just blocks from the federal courthouse.
But at least some of the litigation will happen in Houston. Separate civil claims filed by BP investors will be consolidated under U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in the oil city.