Originally posted by Melissa Lipman - Law360 - August 10, 2010
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation on Tuesday consolidated more than 70 suits over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in federal court in Louisiana, despite BP PLC's efforts to transfer the cases to Texas.
Judge Carl J. Barbier of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana will oversee the 77 cases covered by the transfer order, as well as potentially more than 200 other related suits that could end up in the MDL.
The panel praised Judge Barbier's "distinguished career" and "considerable MDL" experience, saying it had "every confidence that he is well prepared to handle a litigation of this magnitude."
Some of the parties involved in the litigation had questioned whether most judges in the Eastern District of Louisiana would be forced to recuse themselves, suggesting that the cases might fare better in a "neutral" district. But the panel said it was "quite comfortable with its choice" and noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently rejected a petition from some of the defendants for a writ of mandamus forcing Judge Barbier to recuse himself.
In June, Judge Barbier, who was already presiding over about 20 cases over the spill, said he had sold bonds he owned in Halliburton Co. and Transocean Ltd. entities to quell speculation about whether he would have to recuse himself from the cases.
The next month, a Fifth Circuit panel denied the bid from BP, Halliburton and fellow defendant Cameron International Corp. to force Judge Barbier out over the financial instruments, but said the companies could re-move to oust the judge on the basis of the debt instruments being “financial interests in the subject matter in controversy” or based on the possibility that the debt instruments “could be substantially affected by the proceeding.”
Though nearly all of the parties had supported centralizing the myriad cases over the recently capped oil spill, BP Exploration & Production Inc. had asked the panel to put the litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, which is often dubbed “the oil capital of the world.”
BP argued that the forum would be appropriate since the defendants' headquarters, documents and key witnesses are all located there. Halliburton and Cameron — which are named as defendants in most of the litigation — filed papers supporting BP's position.
The panel, however, found that the Eastern District of Louisiana was "the most appropriate" for the matter.
"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.
Some of the parties had also sought to exclude certain personal injury and Oil Pollution Act claims from the MDL, but the panel refused to do so.
The panel found that though the personal injury and wrongful death actions will likely require some individualized discovery, they still have considerable factual overlaps with the rest of the cases.
Likewise, the panel saw no "strong reasons" to separate out claims brought under the OPA, noting that carving those allegations out "would only complicate matters [while] denying centralization altogether is not a viable option."
While it is not expressly included in Tuesday's transfer order, the panel noted that the case that some Transocean units filed in the Texas court in a bid to limit its liability for the spill is potentially a tag-along case for the MDL.
"Although our preliminary assessment is that the action should be included in the centralized proceedings, we do not prejudge the matter," the panel wrote.
The Law Offices of Brent Coon & Associates, which is representing hundreds of plaintiffs in the cases and is among the firms advising Ken Feinberg on the administration of the $20 billion claims fund BP established, said it was pleased with the quick decision to centralize the matter in New Orleans.
A spokesman for BP said the company respects the panel's decision and looked "forward to the cases proceeding as expeditiously and efficiently as possible."
A spokesman for Transocean said the company was "supportive" of the panel's decision.
Representatives for Cameron and Halliburton declined to comment on the matter.
The case is In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, MDL number 2179, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
--Additional reporting by Jesse Greenspan