New Orleans judge to handle most Gulf spill suits

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A federal judge in New Orleans was pickedTuesday to preside over more than 300 lawsuits filed against BP PLCand other companies over the Gulf oil spill, in a move that shouldplease many of the plaintiffs' lawyers and their clients.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation's order said77 cases plus more than 200 potential "tag-along" actions will betransferred to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier with his consent.

The judicial panel's order says the federal court based in NewOrleans is the best place for the litigation even though someattorneys had favored Houston, Miami, Gulfport, Miss., and othercities.

"Without discounting the spill's effects on other states, ifthere is a geographic and psychological 'center of gravity' in thisdocket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it,"the panel wrote.

BP favored Houston, where its U.S. operations are based, butsome of the plaintiffs' attorneys who appeared before theseven-member panel last month in Boise, Idaho, said that mightappear unfair to spill victims.

BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company respects the panel'sdecision.

"We look forward to the cases proceeding as expeditiously andefficiently as possible in the selected venues," Dean said in astatement.

Separately, the judicial panel transferred three lawsuits filedby BP shareholders over stock losses to U.S. District Judge KeithEllison in Houston.

However, Barbier will be handling the bulk of the cases spawnedby the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, whichkilled 11 workers and left millions of gallons of oil spewing intothe Gulf Of Mexico.

Many of the suits were filed on behalf of shrimpers, commercialfishermen, charter captains, property owners, environmental groups,restaurants, hotels and others who claim they have sufferedeconomic losses since the spill. Relatives of workers killed in theblast also have sued.

Rig owner Transocean Ltd., well contractor Halliburton Co. and

Cameron International, maker of the well's failed blowoutpreventer, also have been named as defendants in many of the suits.

Transocean said it supports the decision.

"The purpose of multidistrict litigation is to consolidate,coordinate, and streamline related litigation filed in differentfederal forums, while promoting coordination with state litigation.We look forward to this ruling doing just that and, accordingly, wewill continue to address the issues in their appropriate venues,"the company said in a statement.

The panel said it is "quite comfortable" with its selection ofBarbier, describing him as an "exceptional jurist," even thoughsome companies already have tried to disqualify him from hearingsome cases.

"We have every confidence that he is well prepared to handle alitigation of this magnitude," the panel wrote.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused last month toorder Barbier to recuse himself from dozens of spill-related suitseven though he owned corporate bonds issued by two of the companiessued in the cases. Barbier said his ownership of debt instrumentsissued by Halliburton and Transocean didn't give him a financialinterest in the companies.

Only four New Orleans-based federal judges are available to hearthe cases because some of the court's judge have recusedthemselves, in part because of their oil and gas industryinvestments.

Daniel Becnel Jr., a Reserve, La.-based attorney whose legalteam has filed more than a dozen suits over the spill, downplayedthe notion that many southeast Louisiana jurors would be inclinedto favor plaintiffs over companies.

"Just as many people are working for the oil and gasindustry," he said.

The judicial panel discounted the argument that New Orleans andHouston "might not present a level playing field for allparties."

"When federal judges assume the bench, all take an oath toadminister justice in a fair and impartial manner to all partiesequally," the panel wrote.

Tony Buzbee, a Houston-based lawyer who represents severalDeepwater Horizon rig workers, had favored Texas as the venue forthe cases but also considers New Orleans a fair forum for the casesto be heard.

"I know Judge Barbier is held in very high regard," he said."It's good that it was decided quickly and sent to a respectedjudge. Now it's time to get to work."

Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs, Miss.-based environmentallawyer who has filed several suits over the spill, said the $20billion claims fund BP set up at the White House's urging willeliminate some of the claims in federal court and challenge lawyersto decide if their clients are better off resolving their claimsoutside the courtroom.

"That's not good for the lawyers, but it may be good for thepeople," he said.

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