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Gulf Spill Trial Delayed

Bon Secour Fisheries Inc., located east of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, was one of the first to sue BP after 2010’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Today, Bon Secour was to get its day in court along with an estimated 116,000 other plaintiffs suing BP, represented by 340 attorneys from 90 law firms.

But in a Sunday conference call, the court agreed to a one-week delay, bumping the start of the trial to March 5.  The delay gives the parties in the complex civil litigation more time to reach a whole or partial settlement.

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The case of “In Re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010″ is the biggest courtroom drama to play out in New Orleans since Jim Garrison in 1967 tried Clay Shaw for the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. (Shaw was acquitted.)

Since the world’s largest offshore oil spill, the federal government has issued continual assurances that seafood produced in the Gulf is safe but big questions remain about the marine environment and the market after the disaster. 

For Bon Secour and other Gulf seafood producers, the compensation required to address those questions was too large to go through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).  That is the $20 billion fund BP set up to pay damages without going to court.  

Payments from the GCCF require the approval of Ken Feinberg, the Washington D.C. lawyer who also divided up the 9/11 fund.   He’s handed out $6.7 billion of the fund, mostly payments of $5,000 or less to business and individuals.

The hotel and office markets in New Orleans are getting a positive boost from the hundreds of attorneys involved in the Deepwater Horizon case.   With so many from out of town, they were blamed for making it difficult to get a hotel room during Mardi Gras. 

The U.S. Department of Justice is one of the 116,000 plaintiffs in the Deepwater Horizon case, brining the Clean Water Act and Oil Pollution Act into play.  Separately, DOJ is still looking at possible criminal charges.

The plaintiff’s will run their case through a 19-member committee co-chaired by prominent New Orleans attorneys Steve Herman and Jim Roy.  Andrew Langan, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, leads BP’s legal team.

The trial before U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier will be organized into several stages, and could continue well into 2013. The trial will determined civil liability, deciding who is to blame for the disaster and what share of the blame might be attributed to the various parties.

In addition to BP, top defendants include Transocean, represented by Steve Roberts of the Sutherland in Houston, and Halliburton, represented by Donald Godwin from Godwin Ronquillo in Dallas.

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Ahead of the start of the trial, a national advertising campaign promoting Gulf tourism and making the claim that BP has “made it right” has been airing.

“BP still hasn’t ‘made it right,’ and its claims that ‘the commercial fishing industry is recovering’ is a self-serving PR statement that defies quantification and can in no way be validated at this time,” says Ed Cake, an expert in the Gulf’s marine environment from DIberville, MS.

Cake, who works for the Gulf oyster industry, notes that Alaska’s Price William Sound herring fishery is only now recovering, 22 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and in the 32 years since the Ixtoc-1 oil spill in the Términos Lagoon off Mexican State of Yucatan, the oyster fishery has still not fully recovered.

Before this trial began, the court had logged 7,700 pieces of evidence as exhibits, videotaped depositions from 300 witnesses, and collected 72 million page of documents.  The new start time is set for 8 a.m. local time, Monday, March 5.

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