New Orleans Judge to Oversee Oil Spill Civil Suits

August 11, 2010

A New Orleans federal judge will oversee several hundred civil lawsuits stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a decision that was welcomed by plaintiffs’ attorneys who want the cases to be heard in a place hard hit by the disaster.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, a 12-year veteran of the federal bench and a New Orleans native, will supervise personal injury and other cases filed against BP Plcand other corporate defendants, a special judicial panel wrote in an order Tuesday.

Many attorneys who represent injured oil rig workers, commercial fishermen and property owners had hoped the lawsuits would be centralized in New Orleans, where tourism has suffered and fishing bans have dry-docked shrimping boats in the spill’s aftermath. BP had argued that Houston, where it has its U.S. headquarters, was the best venue.

“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 in its order.

Barbier will be in charge of issues that could decide the future of spill-related lawsuits, such as which laws should be applied. The cases are in their earliest stages.

The judge has deep roots in the Gulf Coast. He was born in New Orleans in 1944, attended Southeastern Louisiana University and Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. He was a lawyer in private practice for many years in New Orleans before President Clinton tapped him for the federal bench in 1998.

Barbier handled a variety of cases stemming from Hurricane Katrina, including the first federal trial in Louisiana in 2007 brought by policyholders against State Farm Insurance over damage from the 2005 hurricane.

BP wanted the spill cases to be heard by a federal judge in Houston. But only securities lawsuits against BP by stockholders angered by its steep share declines will be combined in Houston, the panel decided. Houston federal judge Keith Ellison will oversee those cases.

The seven-judge panel, known as the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, held a hearing in late July in Boise, Idaho, to figure out how to stitch together hundreds of spill-related lawsuits.

Many plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that New Orleans was the best venue, although others wanted locales, including Mississippi and Florida. Some forecast the merged cases would be sent to Barbier, who already had been assigned to at least 40 cases stemming from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“I think he will be a great judge,” said Thomas Sims of the law firm Baron and Budd, which argued for Barbier to oversee the consolidated cases.

He said Barbier was someone “who knows how to work with plaintiffs and defendants to get the case moving forward with minimal court involvement.”

He cited a recent hearing to force BP to preserve oil samples as evidence. Barbier denied the motion, but got both sides to collaborate on a solution.

Barbier said in June he sold his holdings of bonds issued by companies involved in the spill to avoid any appearance of conflicts.

The judicial panel said an appeals court recently denied a petition by some defendants that Barbier be recused from spill cases.

Judges in multidistrict lawsuits hold much power, presiding over how various pretrial processes such as discovery and depositions of witnesses are handled.

Eventually, Barbier is supposed to return the cases to the districts in which they were filed for trial, but in practice judges in multidistrict lawsuits often help forge broad settlements, as happened in the Vioxx product liability cases against drugmaker Merck & Co Inc.

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