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Judge eyes June 2011 for first oil spill trial

NEW ORLEANS — The first federal trial for damage claims by businesses and individuals complaining of financial losses from the Gulf Coast oil spill could be held next summer, a judge said Friday.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who presides over a batch of more than 300 consolidated lawsuits against energy giant BP PLC, said the first “test trial” for claims filed under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act could be held as early as June 2011.

A BP lawyer objected to scheduling a trial that soon. But Judge Barbier said that if he were to adopt the company’s proposed timetable, the first trial wouldn’t take place until 2013 or 2014.

“That’s not feasible to me,” he said at a hearing Friday.

Under the Oil Pollution Act, BP’s liability for economic damages such as lost wages is capped at $75 million. But Tony Hayward, then BP’s chief executive officer, said in May that the cap was largely irrelevant and all legitimate claims would be honored.

Appearing before Judge Barbier, a lead plaintiffs’ lawyer, Stephen Herman, expressed concern that BP may change positioins and invoke the $75 million cap after all.

BP lawyer Don Haycraft said he needed to check with the company before he could formally stipulate that the company is waiving the cap.

“I certainly said BP will pay all legitimate claims,” Haycraft said.
Judge Barbier gave Haycraft a week to state in writing whether the company will agree to waive the cap.

“We all need to know sooner rather than later,” he said.

After the hearing, plaintiffs’ attorney Ervin Gonzalez said the company appears to be sending mixed signals on the cap.