Feds seek summer trial date for Gulf spill claims

The Justice Department is urging a federal judge to set a new trial date for no later than this summer for government claims against BP over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a court filing Tuesday, government lawyers say a class-action settlement agreement between the oil giant and a team of plaintiffs' attorneys shouldn't delay a trial for claims that aren't covered by the proposed deal.

London-based BP PLC has asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to set a January 2013 trial date for remaining claims.

"BP's proposed delay would render these substantial public interests subservient to BP's corporate interest in resolving its litigation exposure to private party litigants," Justice Department attorneys wrote. "This private party settlement process, however, need not preclude trial of the broader government claims, as the processes can and should proceed in tandem."

The state of Alabama also on Tuesday asked Barbier to set a new trial for this summer. The judge has scheduled a meeting Thursday behind closed doors to discuss a new trial date.

Meanwhile, Barbier is expected to decide this week whether to preliminarily approve the settlement agreement. But he would hold a "fairness hearing" on the proposal later this year before giving it his final approval.

A trial originally was scheduled to start Feb. 27, but Barbier postponed it indefinitely after BP and the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee announced they had reached a deal that would resolve more than 100,000 claims by people and businesses blaming economic losses on the spill.

The proposed settlement doesn't have a cap, but BP estimates it will pay about $7.8 billion to resolve the private claims.

The settlement doesn't resolve separate claims brought by the federal government and Gulf states against BP and its partners on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig over environmental damage from the spill. It also doesn't resolve private plaintiffs' claims against Switzerland-based rig owner Transocean Ltd. and Houston-based cement contractor Halliburton.

The April 20, 2010, blowout of BP's Macondo well triggered an explosion on the rig that killed 11 workers and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.