NEW ORLEANS — To avoid disruptions from the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, a federal judge in New Orleans has postponed a trial for claims spawned by BP's massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier announced during a hearing Friday that he is moving the start of the trial from Jan. 14 to Feb. 25. The trial is designed to identify the causes of BP's deadly well blowout and assign percentages of fault to the companies involved in the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling project.
The NFL's Super Bowl is Feb. 3 at the Superdome. Mardi Gras is Feb. 12, but parades begin weeks earlier.
Barbier, however, refused to postpone a Nov. 1 deadline for businesses and individuals to opt out of a multibillion dollar settlement between BP and private plaintiffs' attorneys over economic damage claims from the spill. He also said he won't delay a Nov. 8 fairness hearing on the proposed settlement.
Some plaintiffs' attorneys who didn't have a hand in brokering the deal had urged Barbier to extend the opt-out deadline, saying their clients need more time to decide whether it's in their best interest to participate. Barbier said some claimants or their lawyers have a "fundamental misunderstanding" about how the process works.
"There is clearly sufficient – more than sufficient – transparency in this settlement," he said.
Barbier said he was disturbed to hear reports that some attorneys with large stables of clients are advising them to opt out of the settlement en masse. The judge said it would be "highly inappropriate" for a lawyer to make that determination without individually assessing and analyzing each client's claim.
Barbier also offered a word of caution for claimants who are thinking of opting out of the deal.
"Opting out will mean you're opting to go it alone in individual lawsuits against the defendants," he said, warning that it could take years for individual cases to be resolved.
Earlier this week, BP and the lead plaintiffs' attorneys on the case urged Barbier to disregard objections to the proposed settlement and give it his final approval.
More than 200 people and groups formally objected to the deal, while 983 potential claimants had asked to opt out as of Oct. 19. More than 100,000 plaintiffs could benefit from the deal.
Brent Coon, a Beaumont, Texas-based attorney who says he represents about 14,000 clients with spill-related claims, has urged Barbier to amend the settlement terms so that claimants won't have to decide whether to opt out until the claims administrator has determined how much money they are eligible to receive.
"There's no reason why there should be pressure on claimants to make this decision," Coon said.
BP, which estimates it will pay $7.8 billion to resolve claims through the uncapped settlement, agreed to continue paying claims though a court-supervised process before the judge decides whether to give final approval.
Barbier said claimants have been paid or received offers worth a total of roughly $1.1 billion since a court-supervised process replaced the Gulf Coast Claims Facility overseen by claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg.
"It's actually been pretty remarkable, in my opinion, how this has worked," Barbier said.