NEW ORLEANS – A federal trial over the worst offshore oil disaster in U.S. history has been delayed for a week to allow more time for settlement talks, a judge ruled Sunday.
The brief order from U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said only that the order was issued "for reasons of judicial efficiency and to allow the parties to make further progress in their settlement discussions."
Two people close to the case told The Associated Press the decision was made Sunday during a conference call between parties in the case and U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the call.
During the call, the judge did not mention the status of settlement talks, nor did he mention any numbers being discussed, according to the people close to the case.
Among other things, the trial that is now set to begin March 5 is meant to determine the penalties that need to be paid by BP and other companies involved in the massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Billions of dollars are at stake.
BP PLC confirmed in a news release that the trial had been delayed. It said the oil giant and the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee were working to reach an agreement that would fairly compensate people and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and resulting spill.
Separately, BP has had discussions in recent days with the federal government and cement contractor Halliburton, according to several people close to the case.
If no settlement is ultimately reached, Barbier will preside over a three-phase trial that could last the better part of a year. The first phase is designed to identify the causes of the deadly blowout and to assign percentages of fault to the companies involved in the ill-fated drilling project.
The trial may not yield major revelations about the causes of the disaster, but the outcome could bring much-needed relief for tens of thousands of people and businesses whose livelihoods were disrupted by the spill.
The decisions and actions that led to the explosion and spill already have been painstakingly investigated by the Coast Guard, federal regulators and a presidential commission. Their probes concluded BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cement contractor Halliburton Energy Services Inc. deserve to share the blame for a string of risky decisions that were designed to save time and money.
The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in water a mile (1.6 kilometers) deep the night of April 20, 2010, when an explosion and fire rocked the rig, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. It burned for two days before sinking. An estimated 206 million gallons (780 million liters) of oil spilled out of the BP-owned Macondo well over several months, fouling sandy beaches and coastal marshes and shutting vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing.
The massive scope of the case -- a maze of claims and counterclaims between the companies, federal and state governments and plaintiffs' attorneys -- has elicited comparisons to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.
Roughly 340 plaintiffs' lawyers have worked on the case. BP has spent millions of dollars on experts and law firms. More than 300 depositions have been taken. Millions of pages of legal briefs have been filed. One Justice Department lawyer said it would take him 210 years to read all the pages submitted into the record if he read 1,000 pages a day.
Barbier, a former president of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association and appointee of President Bill Clinton, has a reputation for speedy but fair trials. He will hear and decide the case without a jury. Each trial phase is expected to last two to three months, with breaks in between. Even if all parties settle their claims before or during the trial, it could take several months for claims to be paid.