In a major win for plaintiffs, the multidistrict litigation for wrongful death and economic damages victims of the BP oil spill will take place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Oil companies like BP and Transocean hoped the panel would send the lawsuits to Houston, Texas, the nation’s capital for oil interests, but plaintiffs kept pulling for New Orleans, which the MDL panel called the “geographic and psychological center of gravity” for the oil spill in its four-page opinion.
Some defense attorneys speculated that the MDL panel would split the 77 lawsuits into two categories: wrongful death and economic damages. But since the suits “indisputably shared factual issues,” the panel decided that such a split was unnecessary, and left all cases under the adjudication of District Judge Carl Barbier of the eastern district of Louisiana. ” Our experience teaches us that most, if not all, multidistrict proceedings do not require the oversight of more than one able and energetic jurist, provided that he or she has the time and resources to handle the assignment,” wrote the planel.
Despite his New Orleans roots, there are some indications that Barbier, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, won’t be a slam dunk for plaintiffs. Last month, he was pressured to recuse himself from spill-related cases because he once held corporate bonds issued by the defendants. He has since divested his holdings in Transocean and Halliburton and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals never formerly ordered Barbier to recuse himself.
Judge and location aside, plaintiffs attorneys don’t expect to have a difficult time holding BP liable for the spill. Charlie Tebbutt, an Oregon attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, even thinks plaintiffs can dodge the $75 million liability cap by showing that the oil companies were willfully negligent. Penalties could even reach $20 billion, he says, “if we can prove gross negligence or willful misconduct, which we expect should be relatively easy to prove in this case.”
Even as these lawsuits progress down in New Orleans, more are expected to arise in the coming months and years as the full impact of the spill is determined. As the panel wrote this week, “Its full impact on the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of Americans, especially those living in or near the Gulf of Mexico, is as yet undetermined.”
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