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Aug 10, 2010 9:15 PM by Alison Haynes

New Orleans judge to handle most Gulf spill suits

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge in New Orleans was picked
Tuesday to preside over more than 300 lawsuits filed against BP PLC
and other companies over the Gulf oil spill, in a move that should
please many of the plaintiffs' lawyers and their clients.
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation's order said
77 cases plus more than 200 potential "tag-along" actions will be
transferred to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier with his consent.
The judicial panel's order says the federal court based in New
Orleans is the best place for the litigation even though some
attorneys had favored Houston, Miami, Gulfport, Miss., and other
cities.
"Without discounting the spill's effects on other states, if
there is a geographic and psychological 'center of gravity' in this
docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it,"
the panel wrote.
BP favored Houston, where its U.S. operations are based, but
some of the plaintiffs' attorneys who appeared before the
seven-member panel last month in Boise, Idaho, said that might
appear unfair to spill victims.
BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company respects the panel's
decision.
"We look forward to the cases proceeding as expeditiously and
efficiently as possible in the selected venues," Dean said in a
statement.
Separately, the judicial panel transferred three lawsuits filed
by BP shareholders over stock losses to U.S. District Judge Keith
Ellison in Houston.
However, Barbier will be handling the bulk of the cases spawned
by the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which
killed 11 workers and left millions of gallons of oil spewing into
the Gulf Of Mexico.
Many of the suits were filed on behalf of shrimpers, commercial
fishermen, charter captains, property owners, environmental groups,
restaurants, hotels and others who claim they have suffered
economic losses since the spill. Relatives of workers killed in the
blast also have sued.
Rig owner Transocean Ltd., well contractor Halliburton Co. and
Cameron International, maker of the well's failed blowout
preventer, also have been named as defendants in many of the suits.
Transocean said it supports the decision.
"The purpose of multidistrict litigation is to consolidate,
coordinate, and streamline related litigation filed in different
federal forums, while promoting coordination with state litigation.
We look forward to this ruling doing just that and, accordingly, we
will continue to address the issues in their appropriate venues,"
the company said in a statement.
The panel said it is "quite comfortable" with its selection of
Barbier, describing him as an "exceptional jurist," even though
some companies already have tried to disqualify him from hearing
some cases.
"We have every confidence that he is well prepared to handle a
litigation of this magnitude," the panel wrote.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused last month to
order Barbier to recuse himself from dozens of spill-related suits
even though he owned corporate bonds issued by two of the companies
sued in the cases. Barbier said his ownership of debt instruments
issued by Halliburton and Transocean didn't give him a financial
interest in the companies.
Only four New Orleans-based federal judges are available to hear
the cases because some of the court's judge have recused
themselves, in part because of their oil and gas industry
investments.
Daniel Becnel Jr., a Reserve, La.-based attorney whose legal
team has filed more than a dozen suits over the spill, downplayed
the notion that many southeast Louisiana jurors would be inclined
to favor plaintiffs over companies.
"Just as many people are working for the oil and gas
industry," he said.
The judicial panel discounted the argument that New Orleans and
Houston "might not present a level playing field for all
parties."
"When federal judges assume the bench, all take an oath to
administer justice in a fair and impartial manner to all parties
equally," the panel wrote.
Tony Buzbee, a Houston-based lawyer who represents several
Deepwater Horizon rig workers, had favored Texas as the venue for
the cases but also considers New Orleans a fair forum for the cases
to be heard.
"I know Judge Barbier is held in very high regard," he said.
"It's good that it was decided quickly and sent to a respected
judge. Now it's time to get to work."
Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs, Miss.-based environmental
lawyer who has filed several suits over the spill, said the $20
billion claims fund BP set up at the White House's urging will
eliminate some of the claims in federal court and challenge lawyers
to decide if their clients are better off resolving their claims
outside the courtroom.
"That's not good for the lawyers, but it may be good for the
people," he said.

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