The U.S. Justice Department’s decision to open a criminal investigation into the Gulf Coast oil spill is threatening to complicate scores of lawsuits brought by people seeking compensation for the disaster.

At issue are questions that often come up in so-called “parallel proceedings” — in which multiple government agencies are investigating the same event for possible wrongdoing. Different divisions of the Justice and Interior Departments are looking into the oil spill, searching for civil and criminal liability. And in this situation, said lawyers with experience in environmental investigations, the existence of the private lawsuits adds another layer of difficulty.

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