Justice Department says BP settlement should not influence civil trial

The lines in the upcoming civil battle between BP and the Justice Department over responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon accident are being drawn in words.

The Justice Department’s objections to a settlement between BP and individual plaintiffs is one such line. Government lawyers made clear their view that BP may be overreaching in certain statement it has made about the accident in the settlement, in a Tuesday morning filing.

“The United States respectfully requests that the proposed findings and conclusions be modified in order to clarify that they will have no effect on, and will cause no prejudice to, the claims and rights of the United States and various states or, indeed, upon any of the non-settling local governmental and private plaintiff parties,” the Justice Department wrote.

The Justice Department is using its objection to ensure that no statements of fact that part of the settlement between BP and individual plaintiffs can be then later be argued as court-sanctioned facts by BP at the upcoming February 25 civil trial, which will determine civil liability for the accident and which could result in billions of dollars of federal fines.

The specific objections include the use of the word ‘quibble’ to characterize other objections filed about the settlement and statements about the expertise level of some of BP’s expert witnesses.

Legal experts say skilled lawyers frequently take the opportunity to build the case for their argument, even in indirectly related motions.

“You are going to use every opportunity to influence the merits of the case, even in the course of discussing why a settlement should be approved,” said Blaine LeCesne, a torts law professor at Loyola University, who has closely followed the case. “Good lawyers do that all the time.”

BP and individual plaintiffs are waiting for the estimated $7.8 billion settlement to receive final approval by federal judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the case. The settlement would resolve the economic and medical claims of Gulf Coast residents impacted by the Deepwater accident, which spilled millions of barrels of oil and killed 11 workers.

Barbier is considering objections to the settlement and whether the agreement, which is structured as a class action settlement, treats all claimants fairly.

The federal government is not a party to the settlement, and made it clear in its objection that it does not oppose the settlement itself.

“In filing these objections, the United States nevertheless wishes to state clearly, once again, that it does not take a position as to the proposed settlement,” the Justice Department wrote. “The United States’ over-riding concern is that findings and conclusions rendered in the context of the class settlement proceedings not cause prejudice to any non-settling plaintiffs.”