Judges Weigh Which Courts Should Oversee BP Oil Lawsuits

July 28, 2010

Attorneys hoping to lead the legal fight against BP Plc will descend on the unlikely venue of Boise, Idaho, this week as a special judicial panel considers how to bring order to a wave of spill-related lawsuits.

A group of seven federal judges is convening more than 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico’s oil-smudged shores in landlocked Idaho, better known for potatoes than high-stakes court action.

The judges will consider which U.S. court, or courts, should oversee the hundreds of spill-related civil lawsuits brought by injured rig workers, fishermen, investors and property owners, and which judge will oversee them.

Some of the country’s top trial lawyers, who have won billions for plaintiffs in cases involving asbestos and Big Tobacco, will have only a few minutes at most on Thursday to make their case in favor of combining BP federal lawsuits in venues such as New Orleans, Houston or even California.

“There will be more lawyers in that courtroom than exist in the entire city of Boise put together,” joked Mark Lanier, a Houston-based lawyer who plans to attend the hearing along with five other attorneys from his firm. “It’s going to be a circus.”

The panel, formally known as the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, is meeting in Boise as part of a regularly scheduled rotation among federal courts.

It will hear arguments from lawyers who hope to influence how lawsuits spurred by the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion — expected to wend through the courts for years — are managed. No immediate decision from the panel is expected.

BP has asked that the cases be overseen by a federal judge in Houston, America’s oil capital, where the company has its U.S. headquarters.

Not surprisingly, many plaintiffs want a different venue.

“Our view is that it should not be in Texas,” said attorney Robert Cunningham. “There is a risk that many of the folks who have suffered as a result of this will view it as unfair.”

Cunningham said he thinks a better spot is Mobile, Alabama, home of his law firm, Cunningham Bounds.

The Boise panel will decide whether the cases belong under the umbrella of one court, or potentially several courts. The courts and judges that are chosen would oversee the discovery and deposition process, as well as settle important matters such as which laws to apply.

Many plaintiffs want the cases heard in New Orleans, where tourism dollars have dried up amid concerns about its prized seafood, and commercial and sports fishing boats have been dry-docked by the slick.

Those arguing for New Orleans say that holding the hearings there will help heal wounds of recent years by bringing in attorneys, paralegals and others who will patronize the city’s hotels and restaurants.

“To take this case and say, ‘we’ll litigate it in Texas or Miami,’ smacks in the face of the people who’ve already been smacked in the face by Mother Nature,” said Steve Herman, of New Orleans law firm Herman Herman Katz & Cotlar.

The city’s experience with Hurricane Katrina also could play in its favor as litigation from that disaster helps makes the case for the city’s judicial expertise.

New Orleans courts have also handled two other large cases assigned by the MDL panel — Chinese drywall cases and Vioxx product liability. But that could work against the city if the panel is concerned about the court’s ability to handle another complex case.

Several federal judges in New Orleans already have recused themselves from hearing spill-related cases due to conflicts.

Scott Summy, of law firm Baron and Budd in Dallas, has argued that the MDL panel should consider bringing in Manhattan federal judge Shira Scheindlin, who handled a large case involving oil companies that were accused of contaminating water with the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether.

Others have suggested that the panel could lighten the load by dividing cases among courts.

While attorneys will jostle for the limelight at Thursday’s hearing, it may not matter much in the end where the cases land, said Edward Sherman, a Tulane University law professor in New Orleans. He said federal judges are sophisticated, and there are many who can handle oversight of these lawsuits.

“I think the lawyers put too much emphasis on it,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Martha Graybow in New York, editing by Dave Zimmerman)

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