BP Trial Will Be in January, Louisiana AG Caldwell Says

The first trial over the BP Plc (BP/) oil spill will be scheduled for Jan. 14, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said.

The initial trial date, set for March this year, was postponed when BP and lawyers for private parties reached a $7.8 billion partial settlement of claims. BP and the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the lawsuits, to postpone any trial on liability until after a Nov. 8 fairness hearing on the settlement.

“We got a trial date reset for Jan. 14,” Caldwell said today in an interview after a closed-door session before Barbier. An order will be issued soon, Caldwell said.

BP in March agreed to pay an estimated $7.8 billion to resolve most private plaintiffs’ claims for economic loss, property damage and spill and cleanup-related injuries. The settlement establishes two classes, one for economic loss and the other for injuries related to the spill or the cleanup.

The proposed settlement, reached March 2, days before a scheduled trial on liability for the 2010 spill, doesn’t cover federal government claims and those of Gulf Coast states Louisiana and Alabama.

Excluded Claims

It also excludes claims of financial institutions, casinos, private plaintiffs in parts of Florida and Texas, and residents and businesses claiming harm from the Obama administration’s moratorium on deep-water drilling prompted by the spill.

Barbier granted preliminary approval of the settlement yesterday.

The blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The accident prompted hundreds of lawsuits against London-based BP; Transocean Ltd. (RIG), the Vernier, Switzerland-based owner and operator of the rig; and Halliburton Co. (HAL), which provided cementing services.

The U.S. government also sued BP, Transocean and BP’s partners in the well, Mitsui & Co. (8031)’s MOEX Offshore 2007 and The Woodlands, Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC), alleging violations of federal pollution laws. Louisiana and Alabama sued as well. MOEX has settled the federal pollution claims.

The plaintiffs’ and government claims against BP’s contractors on the doomed Macondo well remain after the settlement reached in March.

Trial Issues

A trial would cover these suits, federal and state government pollution claims against BP, and cross-claims between BP and its partner companies in the Macondo site and rig.

Under the settlement, BP has assigned to the plaintiffs the company’s right to seek cleanup costs and the value of the lost oil from Transocean and Halliburton.

The first trial, a nonjury phase before Barbier, would focus on fault for the incident and the issue of gross negligence.

The disaster sent more than 4 million barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the U.S., leaving BP liable for fines as high as $17.6 billion.

The federal Clean Water Act lets the U.S. government seek fines of as much as $1,100 for each barrel of oil spilled as a result of simple negligence, often described as a failure to exercise ordinary care. The maximum increases to $4,300 a barrel for gross negligence, or a conscious act or omission.

Alabama Attorney General

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange flashed a thumbs-up after today’s hearing.

“It’s good,” Strange said. “A trial date is a trial date.” Strange asked Barbier this week to set a trial date as soon as July 16.

“We are pleased with the court’s decisions to date and continue to have the utmost confidence in the strength of our case,” Lou Colasuonno, a Transocean spokesman, said in an e- mail today.

Steve Herman, a lead attorney for plaintiffs, and Ellen Moskowitz, a BP spokeswoman, declined to comment after today’s hearing.

The case is In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at mcfisk@bloomberg.net. Allen Johnson Jr. in federal court in New Orleans at allenmct@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

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