NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge in New Orleans said Wednesday he is leaning in favor of granting preliminary approval to a proposed class-action settlement that would resolve billions of dollars in claims against BP over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
After hearing BP and a team of plaintiffs' attorneys outline the proposed deal, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said he plans to rule within a week. Barbier would hold a "fairness hearing" later this year, possibly in November, before deciding whether to give his final approval.
The proposed agreement is intended to resolve more than 100,000 claims by people and businesses who blame economic losses on the nation's worst offshore oil spill.
"This has been a very impressive effort on the part of counsel ... in terms of getting to where you all are today," Barbier said, noting that litigation over the Exxon Valdez spill took roughly 20 years to resolve. "I did not intend for this case to go on for 20 years, not with me in charge of it."
London-based BP PLC estimates it would pay about $7.8 billion to resolve these claims, but the settlement wouldn't be capped.
Barbier stressed that his preliminary approval would only mark a "starting point."
Objections already have begun trickling in. In a court filing earlier Wednesday, a group of commercial fishermen and industry groups said it sees "significant flaws" in the settlement and claimed it wouldn't protect most fishermen against future risks to fisheries. Also Wednesday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said in a court filing he objects to the settlement's use of liability releases the former administrator of a victims' compensation fund had people sign if they were seeking a final payment from the fund. Hood maintains the releases are illegal and would improperly exclude 200,000 individuals and businesses from sharing in the settlement if it is approved in its current form.
BP has agreed to pay $2.3 billion for seafood-related claims by commercial fishing vessel owners, captains and deckhands. The settlement also would compensate other categories of losses, including lost wages, businesses losses, property damage and damage to vessels that worked on the spill cleanup.
The agreement calls for paying medical claims by cleanup workers and others who say they suffered illnesses from exposure to the oil or chemicals used to disperse it. In addition, BP has agreed to spend $105 million over five years to set up a Gulf Coast health outreach program and pay for medical examinations.
BP attorney Rick Godfrey said the agreement differs from most other class-action settlements in that claimants will be paid before a judge gives final approval or appeals are exhausted.