A federal judge in New Orleans will preside over the multidistrict litigation arising from the BP oil spill.
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation on Tuesday ordered the wrongful death and economic and environmental damages actions against BP PLC and other defendants sent to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in the Eastern District of Louisiana. The panel's order said that New Orleans was the "geographic and psychological center of gravity" for the oil spill. Barbier has agreed to hear the cases.
The litigation consists of 77 actions and more than 200 potential tag-along cases. Additional defendants include Transocean Ltd., Halliburton Co. and Cameron International Corp.
Three lawsuits brought by BP shareholders over stock losses will go to U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in the Southern District of Texas. He is a New Orleans native.
Some defense attorneys had urged the panel to send the cases to Houston, where BP bases its U.S. operations. There was some speculation last month during a hearing before the panel in Boise, Idaho, that it might split the cases, sending personal injury and wrongful death litigation to one venue and economic and environmental damages to another.
In its four-page order, the panel ruled that all of the actions "indisputably shared factual issues" and that centralization of the cases would eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings and conserve the resources of the parties. The panel also rejected the idea of sending the cases to more than one judge.
"Our experience teaches us that most, if not all, multidistrict proceedings do not require the oversight of more than one able and energetic jurist, provided that he or she has the time and resources to handle the assignment," U.S. District Judge John Heyburn II of Louiville, Ky., wrote for the panel.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month refused to order Barbier to recuse himself from spill-related cases, even though he previously owned corporate bonds issued by two of the defendants. Barbier has divested his holdings in Transocean and Halliburton to avoid the appearance of a conflict.
The panel said that it was "quite comfortable with its choice." Only four New Orleans-based federal judges remained available to hear the cases; the others were ineligible because of their investments in the oil and gas industry or personal connections with the attorneys involved.
Barbier was nominated to the bench by President Clinton in 1998. Born in 1944 in New Orleans, he received his law degree from Loyola University New Orleans School of Law.
Tuesday's order stemmed from the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig located 130 miles southeast of New Orleans. Until mid-July, crude oil gushed largely unabated from the site.
"Its full impact on the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of Americans, especially those living in or near the Gulf of Mexico, is as yet undetermined," Heyburn wrote. Many of the lawsuits were filed by commercial fishermen, property owners and environmental groups.