High-Stakes Trial Begins for 2010 Gulf Oil Spill

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BP, meanwhile, argues the federal government’s estimate of how much oil spewed from the well — more than 200 million gallons — is inflated by at least 20 percent. Clean Water Act penalties are based on how many barrels of oil spilled.

Barbier plans to hold the trial in at least two phases and may issue partial rulings at the end of each. The first phase, which could last three months, is designed to determine what caused the blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved. The second phase will address efforts to stop the flow of oil from the well and aims to determine how much crude spilled into the Gulf.

The trial originally was scheduled to start a year ago, but Barbier postponed it to allow BP to wrap up its settlement with the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee.

Barbier, 68, was nominated by President Bill Clinton and has served on the court since 1998. He had a private law practice, primarily representing small businesses and other plaintiffs in civil cases, and served as president of the New Orleans Bar Association before he joined the bench.

Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor who has represented criminal defendants in Barbier’s court, described him as a “no-nonsense” but even-tempered judge.

“He’s very good at getting down to the pertinent issues,” Ciolino said. “Some judges could be described as impatient, short or gruff. He is none of that.”

Despite the bitter disputes at the root of the case, Barbier has maintained a collegial atmosphere at his monthly status conferences with the lawyers, cracking an occasional joke or good-naturedly ribbing attorneys over their college football allegiances.

Cordial with each other in the courtroom, the competing attorneys have saved their harshest rhetoric for court filings or news releases. Despite its settlement with BP last year, the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee attorneys won’t be allies at trial with the London-based oil giant. And they still haven’t resolved civil claims against Transocean or cement contractor Halliburton.

“These three companies’ reckless, greed-driven conduct killed 11 good men, polluted the Gulf for years and left the region’s economy in shambles. Any statement to the contrary is self-serving nonsense,” Steve Herman, a lead plaintiffs’ attorney, said in a recent statement.

A series of government investigations has exhaustively documented the mistakes that led to the blowout, spreading the blame among the companies. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said witnesses scheduled to testify at trial will reveal new information about the cause of the disaster.

“I think you’re going to learn a lot, particularly about the culture that existed at BP and their priorities,” Strange said.

(Photo: AP)

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