Monday, August 2, 2010

Lawyers Make Their Pitch for Venue of Oil-Claims Suits

Louisiana plaintiffs' attorneys appealed to a federal judicial panel on Thursday to send the sprawling oil-spill litigation to a judge in New Orleans, while defense attorneys said the setting was too tainted by the slick and argued instead for Houston.

They were among the roughly 250 attorneys who showed up at the federal courthouse here to make their pitch for a venue for the more than 300 civil cases filed against BP PLC and others. Mississippi and South Carolina were among others also suggested as sites to hear the suits, which include federal economic, environmental, racketeering and personal-injury claims.

BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and other defendants want the cases to go to Houston, where they have corporate offices and an environment more sympathetic to the oil industry.

Arguing for New Orleans was Stephen Flynn, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, who said the agency believed it would at some point have claims against defendants.

He was joined by New Orleans plaintiffs' lawyers who laid out appeals for keeping the litigation in the city, which has long been considered plaintiff-friendly. With so many potential jurors whose livelihoods have been hurt by the spill, lawyers think their cases would fare better there than in Houston, where the oil industry is a major employer.

"If after the Sept. 11 attacks this panel had sent all those cases to Houston or brought in a judge [from elsewhere] to sit in New York, the public would be outraged," said New Orleans plaintiffs' attorney Allan Kanner.

The panel will decide in coming weeks whether to consolidate the cases, as well as other related securities cases, and then where they will be heard and before which judge or judges.

Attorneys have suggested importing a judge from outside the Gulf region to hear the suits in a New Orleans courtroom, splitting the cases and sending them to various judges, or picking one judge to handle all suits, at least initially.

For the New Orleans attorneys, who are representing fishermen, waterfront resorts and others hurt by the spill, one kink in their plans could be whether the panel can find a judge in their city without ties to oil. In the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, all but four judges have recused themselves from the case, and attorneys Thursday said there may be questions of conflicts swirling about three of them.

The panel showed keen interest in New Orleans Judge Carl J. Barbier, asking lawyers for thoughts on his status. Some defendants have tried so far unsuccessfully to have him recused because he sold off Transocean and Halliburton Co. bonds about a month after oil suits came before him. Judge Barbier, who decided not to recuse himself, declined to comment.

Defendants cited judicial conflicts in New Orleans as among the reasons to move the case to Houston. David Beck, representing blowout preventer-maker Cameron International Corp., said Houston offered at least nine judges without oil conflicts.

Andrew Langan, an attorney for BP, said Houston's dockets were less crowded than those in New Orleans. And Donald Godwin, representing Halliburton, said Houston judges know how to keep cases moving along.

Kerry Miller, an attorney for Transocean, said Houston "has the machinery and the infrastructure set up to begin the just and efficient handling of these cases."

Judge John G. Heyburn, the chief judge on the panel, said the judge who ultimately oversees the case would be fair, regardless of venue. "What federal judges do and have done in case after case and time after time is consider cases in a fair way that not only involves the interest of their community but of other communities," he said.

Of the mass of lawyers assembled Thursday, only 23 were permitted to offer arguments before the panel, meeting in Boise for a long-scheduled series of hearings. Most had only two minutes to do so, barely enough time to utter a haiku before a red light flashed to inform them their time was up. Judge Heyburn joked that one attorney was walking so slowly that his time would be over before he arrived at the lectern.

Yet some managed to cram in complex arguments, and a touch of poetry. Russ Herman, a New Orleans plaintiffs' lawyer, quoted from Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and lyrics from a 1927 song, "Louisiana, they're trying to wash us away."

"We rise out of our myth, our metaphor, our mystery, our seafood and our music, which now is threatened, and the threat of our culture threatens our hope and our faith," he told the panel. "You have an opportunity to focus the world on this country, on this disaster, so it won't happen again. Assist us in our resiliency."

By Dionne Searcey,


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