NEW ORLEANS — The civil trial over the United States’ biggest oil spill has been delayed for a week as efforts to settle the multibillion-dollar litigation intensify.
Proceedings were scheduled to begin Monday, but Sunday afternoon, Judge Carl J. Barbier of Federal District Court, who is overseeing the sprawling litigation, issued a brief order pushing the opening day back to March 5 “for reasons of judicial efficiency and to allow the parties to make further progress in their settlement discussions.” In an unusual move, the judge said the court was issuing the order “on its own motion,” as opposed to a request from any party in the case.
Edward F. Sherman, a law professor at Tulane University who has followed the pretrial maneuvers, said a delay so close to the starting date suggested a strong possibility of a settlement.
David M. Uhlmann, who led the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section from 2000 to 2007, agreed, saying “Judge Barbier would not have agreed to a delay of the trial unless a settlement was within reach.”
The order came after a conference call by the judge and the parties in the case. BP and the steering committee of plaintiffs’ lawyers issued a joint statement saying that they had been given “more time to continue settlement discussions and attempt to reach an agreement” but that “there can be no assurance that these discussions will lead to a settlement agreement.”
BP and its business partners have many reasons to want to extricate themselves from the uncertainty and embarrassment of a trial. The federal government, which stands to collect the largest portion of the billions in potential liability from the defendant companies in environmental fines, could also benefit from the assured recovery of a settlement.
If the settlement talks fail and the trial does begin on March 5, Sheryl Revette plans to be sitting in the courtroom. Revette’s husband, Dewey, was one of the 11 rig workers killed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spilled millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Hundreds of thousands of potential plaintiffs have already settled with BP through a $20 billion fund the company created at the request of the Obama administration.
One of those who settled, Sandy DeFelice, co-owner of Pacal’s Manale restaurant in New Orleans, said he was happy that he did not have to wait for years for a court to deliver an uncertain sum. “We’re done,” said DeFelice, whose restaurant’s signature dish, barbecue shrimp, had to be taken off the menu during the worst of the spill.