Though the leak at BP’s infamous off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon appears to be contained, class action lawsuits against the company and its affiliates are heating up and could put the companies on the hook for tens of billions of dollars. That process begins Thursday at an Idaho hearing to decide which judges will reside over the cases, and where they will take place.

Loyola Law School professor and civil procedure expert Georgene Vairo emphasizes the enormity of what’s on the line for both sides. “For a single-event type of incident, this is the biggest we’ve ever seen, just in the range of claims, the government and private-party actions, the cost of claims, the insurance aspects,” she told the LA Times. “It’s just the whole nine yards. It’s huge.”

What’s most surprising (or perhaps entirely unsurprising) is how transparent the oil companies have been in trying to get the cases heard in Houston, their home base where judges and the public may be more sympathetic to their claims. BP has even petitioned in favor of Judge Lynn N. Hughes who, like a handful of regional judges, has a record major investments in the oil industry.

Plaintiffs, on the other hand, are hoping the lawsuits will move forward in Louisiana, where residents are more likely to have personal connections to the spill and vilify BP and its affiliates.

Over the past months, plaintiffs and consumer advocates have expressed concern that maritime laws cap BP’s liability at $75 million. In reality, that number is expected to be much higher considering that the company is liable for unlimited clean up costs. And if plaintiffs’ attorneys can show that the companies were willfully negligent, all bets are off. Charlie Tebbutt, an Oregon attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity said the maximum penalties for BP and Transocean could reach $4,300 per barrel spilled, up to $20 billion, “if we can prove gross negligence or willful misconduct, which we expect should be relatively easy to prove in this case.”

Due to the volume and diversity of lawsuits against BP and its affiliates, many plaintiffs’ attorneys expect the company to catch some heat from whichever judge is assigned to the suits. But there’s no doubt that location will have a large impact and could be the deciding factor on whether BP sinks or swims when the suits are complete.

Photo credit: USCGD8

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Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.