Panel of 7 judges will sort out dozens of oil spill lawsuits

McClatchy NewspapersJune 10, 2010 

WASHINGTON — More than 150 lawsuits related to BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico have been filed so far.

Boise, Idaho, will host the July 29 public meeting of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which determines how to consolidate complicated federal lawsuits filed in multiple courts. The panel's seven judges will also determine which judge should hear the case, and where it should be heard.

The panel meets every two months in different parts of the country.

Consolidating the cases makes it easier for the people who filed them and the companies they filed against by eliminating duplicative discovery proceedings and motions. Consolidation also eliminates the possibility of inconsistent rulings, said Carl Nelson, who spent 11 years on a complex case involving an oil spill in Florida.

Already, some courts have given very different readings on how to proceed with existing cases.

"BP moved in two courts to stay the proceedings for some period of time," Nelson said. "One judge said 'we'll stay it,' one judge said 'no, we won't.'"

The panel must find a judge who can make time to hear a case that could take up to a decade to decide, and it must find a judge who understands how to handle complicated cases and subject matter, he said.

Nelson said there's some sentiment among judges on the panel to hear consolidated cases in neutral places.

It's likely the case will be heard in Houston or New Orleans, although that could be complicated by the availability of federal judges. Six of the 12 judges in the judicial district based in New Orleans have recused themselves from hearing oil spill-related claims.

Yet the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, eight law firms representing claimants in the spill, would like the case consolidated and heard in New Orleans, where the lawyers say the most harm has been felt.

An explosion at the well April 20 killed 11 workers, and escaping oil has fouled coastlines in four states.

"That's where most of the claimants reside, that's where most of the damage is going to have to be determined," said lawyer Marvin Morris of Hattiesburg, Miss.

BP has sought to have the lawsuits heard in Houston, home to its U.S. operations as well as those of its rig operator, Transocean.

BP faces hundreds of millions of dollars in claims. Plaintiffs include the families of people killed and injured in the explosion, plus thousands of fishermen, shrimpers, hotel owners, property owners and state and local governments that will have suffered damages. Meanwhile, the federal government is investigating for possible criminal activity.

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