In an unprecedented move designed to help expedite the lawsuits involving the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, U.S. Disrict Judge Carl Barbier has approved a plan proposed by both defense and plaintiff lawyers to group claims into "pleading bundles."
Plaintiff liaison counsel Steven Herman coined the term "pleading bundles."
Barbier said he had never before heard of the term and that no such term appears in the complex litigation manual or online. But, Barbier said he agreed with the concept.
"We are creating something here," Barbier said at a hearing Sept. 16.
Barbier presides over oil spill cases from federal courts in 10 states by appointment of the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi District Litigation.
Along with pleading bundles, plaintiff and defense counsel have agreed on a simplified complaint process to expedite filings.
Plaintiff counsel will assemble one "master" complaint which will include all the causes of action being brought against BP Plc, Transocean, Halliburton and other companies involved in the oil spill. After that is filed, the defense will have the opportunity respond with one master answer.
After the plaintiff's complaint has been filed, anyone who wishes to also file suit can then fill out a simplified complaint with check-offs for every cause of action they wish to pursue.
Barbier extended the filing deadline to April 20, 2011, the one-year anniversary of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP.
The pleading bundles are designed to group together similar claims into large groups and try them all at the same time. For example, restaurants, hotels and seafood distributors claiming economic losses under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) would be in one bundle, while wrongful death and personal injury claims would be a separate bundle.
Michigan attorney Tom Heiden addressed the court on behalf of Nalco, the company that provided the dispersants used in the oil spill cleanup, to make sure that suits against his clients would have a separate bundle.
Barbier noted that no bundles had been made yet and that processes would not be completed until the master complaint was filed.
New Orleans attorney Allan Kanner, representing the state of Louisiana, raised a similar issue on behalf of all the government claims against BP and other companies associated with the oil spill. Kanner said that he had "hit a brick wall" with plaintiff and defense counsel, but Barbier urged Kanner to continue negotiations.
Texas attorney Earnest Cannon, representing 46 injured rig works and the families of five workers that were killed in the explosion, spoke to the court about the need to expedite his clients' claims over all other civil actions.
"When considering the depth of grief and torture these families have gone through, my words seem inadequate," Cannon said.
Cannon spoke on behalf of his clients and a "coalition" of plaintiff attorneys that represent the rig workers who were injured or killed in the April Deepwater Horizon explosion. Their goal is to get the discovery done in the next year on the limitation of liability for the companies involved.
Barbier said he was sympathetic to the pain and suffering of the families involved, but that the he does not think expediting the personal injury and wrongful death claims to the point where there is a shortened discovery would be prudent.
"It's not realistic that all the discovery will be accomplished," Barbier said.
Discovery was a serious point of contention between plaintiff and defense counsel during the hearing.
BP attorney Andrew Langan said that the defense has already provided more than 600,000 pages of documents to the plaintiffs.
Plaintiff liaison counsel Jim Roy argued that the defense was seeking to limit discovery until the master complaint was filed and that it was the plaintiff's right to aggressive discovery.
Barbier ordered plaintiff and liaison counsel to meet in the next week to hash out the timing and scope of discovery and to have something ready for the next hearing to take place on Oct. 15.