The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation heard oral argument last week on the issue of consolidating the hundreds of cases arising from the Gulf oil spill. In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico, MDL No. 2179.
The MDL panel met this time in Boise, Idaho, and suspended the usual rule limiting oral
argument to 20 minutes. Multiple attorneys representing the various parties in the pending cases addressed the panel. Most defendants urged the cases be coordinated in the Southern District of Texas, while most plaintiffs, including some of the restaurant owners and fishermen affected by the spill, argued for the Eastern District of Louisiana, asserting that much of the injury/damages is centered there. A few other plaintiffs pushed for the cases to be coordinated in Mississippi, Alabama, or Florida courts.
BP argued that the Texas forum was appropriate because this defendant’s headquarters, documents, and key fact witnesses are all located there. The government wants the cases consolidated in New Orleans. But one issue is that 8 federal judges, including several in Louisiana, have recused themselves from the spill cases. This led to discussion whether potential judicial conflicts should compel the panel to bring in a judge from outside the Gulf states. In New Orleans, the Eastern District of Louisiana has consolidated its 50+ oil spill cases before Judge Carl J. Barbier, who has issued interim case management orders and appointed interim liaison counsel for plaintiffs and defendants. Some have argued this has effectively created an administrative framework that could be utilized were the Panel to send the MDL to New Orleans.
At last look, federal cases were spread around the country, including in New York and California and Illinois. However, the busiest oil spill dockets are in the Eastern District of Louisiana, Southern District of Texas, Southern District of Alabama, and the three Florida district courts, each with more than 10 cases.
As noted here, the litigation involves a wide variety of claims, from personal injury, to property or environmental damages, lost profits, and securities-based economic injury. The panel asked whether the cases, even if consolidated, should be put in separate groupings. Some plaintiffs’ attorneys argued it was particularly important to set up a separate track for personal-injury claims.