Panel seeks right place to consolidate spill lawsuits

BOISE, Idaho — A federal judicial panel wrestled Thursday with perceptions of bias and conflict among both judges and geography in figuring out where to consolidate more than 300 lawsuits filed against BP and other companies in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Some of the 23 attorneys who appeared before the seven-member U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation suggested that sending the cases to the oil-and-gas hub of Houston, favored by BP, might appear unfair to the Gulf fishermen, property owners, restaurateurs and others suing for spill-related economic losses.

The clear favorite among plaintiffs and the U.S. Justice Department is New Orleans federal court, which is closest to the disaster and has the most pending cases. The judicial panel is expected to announce its decision in August.

Some attorneys questioned whether New Orleans was a good choice, considering only four of New Orleans-based judges would be available to hear the case, in part because of recusals due to their oil and gas industry investments. In addition, many people in Louisiana could ultimately benefit from a major oil spill settlement.

“The highest-profile litigation that has ever been in this country will require a jurist above reproach,” said Elizabeth Cabraser, a California plaintiffs’ attorney who favors Gulfport, Miss. as the locale.

The chief of the multidistrict panel, U.S. District Judge John Heyburn of Kentucky, asked several questions about the impact of oil-related investments held by his colleague, Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans. Barbier has sold those investments and declined to recuse himself from the oil cases – and clearly wants the larger group of cases sent to his court.

Ultimately, though, Heyburn expressed faith that a judge’s location would not exert undue influence on rulings. “Time after time they have proven they can do that in a fair way. Whatever judge we choose is going to face those pressures. Fortunately we have a lot of good judges,” Heyburn said.

Outside the federal courthouse, a small group staged a protest to urge the panel choose a judge without ties to the energy industry.

The lawsuits claiming economic damages from shrimpers, commercial fishermen, charter captains, property owners, environmental groups, restaurants, hotels and others began appearing only days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in April, killing 11 workers.

Filed in at least 12 states, they mostly name as defendants BP, rig owner Trans-ocean, well contractor Halliburton Co. and Cameron International, maker of the well’s failed blowout preventer.