US oil spill trial delayed for settlement talks

A trial over the worst offshore oil disaster in US history has been delayed for a week to allow more time for settlement talks, according to two people close to the case.

The trial, which had been set to begin tomorrow, is in part meant to determine the penalties that need to be paid by BP and other companies involved in the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The two sources said the decision to delay it was made yesterday during a conference call between parties in the case and US District Judge Carl Barbier.

BP confirmed in a press release that the trial had been delayed until Mar 5. It said the oil giant and the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee were working to reach an agreement that would fairly compensate people and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and resulting spill.

Separately, BP has had discussions in recent days with the federal government and cement contractor Halliburton, according to several people close to the case.

If no settlement is ultimately reached, Mr Barbier will preside over a three- phase trial that could last the better part of a year. The first phase is designed to identify the causes of the deadly blowout and to assign percentages of fault to the companies involved in the ill-fated drilling project.

The trial may not yield major revelations about the causes of the disaster, but the outcome could bring much-needed relief for tens of thousands of people and businesses whose livelihoods were disrupted by the spill.

The decisions and actions that led to the explosion and spill have already been painstakingly investigated by the coastguard, federal regulators and a presidential commission. Their probes concluded BP, rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton Energy Services deserve to share the blame for a string of risky decisions that were designed to save time and money.

The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in water a mile deep on the night of Apr 20, 2010, when an explosion and fire rocked the rig. It burned for two days before sinking. An estimated 780m litres of oil spilled out of the BP-owned Macondo well over several months, fouling sandy beaches and coastal marshes and shutting vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing.

The massive scope of the case — a maze of claims and counter-claims between the companies, federal and state governments and plaintiffs’ lawyers — has elicited comparisons to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

Roughly 340 plaintiffs’ lawyers have worked on the case. BP has spent millions on experts and law firms. More than 300 depositions have been taken. Millions of pages of legal briefs have been filed. One Justice Department lawyer said it would take him 210 years to read all the pages submitted into the record if he read 1,000 pages a day.

Judge Barbier, a former president of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association and appointee of former president Bill Clinton, has a reputation for speedy but fair trials, and will hear the case without a jury.

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