NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A federal judge in New Orleans was picked Tuesday to preside over more than 300 lawsuits filed against BP PLC and other companies over the Gulf oil spill, in a move that should please many of the plaintiffs' lawyers and their clients.
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation's order said 77 cases plus more than 200 potential "tag-along" actions will be transferred to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier with his consent.
The judicial panel's order says the federal court based in New Orleans is the best place for the litigation even though some attorneys had favored Houston, Miami, Gulfport, Miss., and other cities.
"Without discounting the spill's effects on other states, if there is a geographic and psychological 'center of gravity' in this docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it," the panel wrote.
BP favored Houston, where its U.S. operations are based, but some of the plaintiffs' attorneys who appeared before the seven-member panel last month in Boise, Idaho, said that might appear unfair to spill victims.
BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company respects the panel's decision.
"We look forward to the cases proceeding as expeditiously and efficiently as possible in the selected venues," Dean said in a statement.
Separately, the judicial panel transferred three lawsuits filed by BP shareholders over stock losses to U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Houston.
However, Barbier will be handling the bulk of the cases spawned by the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed 11 workers and left millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf Of Mexico.
Many of the suits were filed on behalf of shrimpers, commercial fishermen, charter captains, property owners, environmental groups, restaurants, hotels and others who claim they have suffered economic losses since the spill. Relatives of workers killed in the blast also have sued.
Rig owner Transocean Ltd., well contractor Halliburton Co. and Cameron International, maker of the well's failed blowout preventer, also have been named as defendants in many of the suits.
Transocean said it supports the decision.
"The purpose of multidistrict litigation is to consolidate, coordinate, and streamline related litigation filed in different federal forums, while promoting coordination with state litigation. We look forward to this ruling doing just that and, accordingly, we will continue to address the issues in their appropriate venues," the company said in a statement.
The panel said it is "quite comfortable" with its selection of Barbier, describing him as an "exceptional jurist," even though some companies already have tried to disqualify him from hearing some cases.
"We have every confidence that he is well prepared to handle a litigation of this magnitude," the panel wrote.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused last month to order Barbier to recuse himself from dozens of spill-related suits even though he owned corporate bonds issued by two of the companies sued in the cases. Barbier said his ownership of debt instruments issued by Halliburton and Transocean didn't give him a financial interest in the companies.
Only four New Orleans-based federal judges are available to hear the cases because some of the court's judge have recused themselves, in part because of their oil and gas industry investments.
Daniel Becnel Jr., a Reserve, La.-based attorney whose legal team has filed more than a dozen suits over the spill, downplayed the notion that many southeast Louisiana jurors would be inclined to favor plaintiffs over companies.
"Just as many people are working for the oil and gas industry," he said.
The judicial panel discounted the argument that New Orleans and Houston "might not present a level playing field for all parties."
"When federal judges assume the bench, all take an oath to administer justice in a fair and impartial manner to all parties equally," the panel wrote.
Tony Buzbee, a Houston-based lawyer who represents several Deepwater Horizon rig workers, had favored Texas as the venue for the cases but also considers New Orleans a fair forum for the cases to be heard.
"I know Judge Barbier is held in very high regard," he said. "It's good that it was decided quickly and sent to a respected judge. Now it's time to get to work."
Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs, Miss.-based environmental lawyer who has filed several suits over the spill, said the $20 billion claims fund BP set up at the White House's urging will eliminate some of the claims in federal court and challenge lawyers to decide if their clients are better off resolving their claims outside the courtroom.
"That's not good for the lawyers, but it may be good for the people," he said.