Cameron and Dril-Quip argue for jury trials in oil spill litigation

By Steve Korris | Jun 14, 2011



Two lonely little voices plead for U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to hold jury trials in litigation over the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Cameron International and Dril-Quip pushed for juries on June 6.

"The Seventh Amendment mandates that in suits at common law, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved," Phillip Wittmann of New Orleans wrote for Cameron.

"In cases seeking monetary damages under federal statutes, the Supreme Court has routinely held that the Seventh Amendment requires jury trials," he wrote.

"The Seventh Amendment does not permit a bench trial of fact issues common to legal claims," he wrote.

Dril-Quip filed a brief adopting Cameron's argument.

Cameron installed a blowout prevention device on the rig, and Dril-Quip owned the wellhead.

Cameron and Dril-Quip agree with the bigger parties that Barbier can proceed without a jury in a trial he plans to start in February.

The trial will revolve around a petition Transocean filed under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, which would cap its liability at the value of the vessel.

Cameron and Dril-Quip believe the trial should revolve only around that petition.

"Cameron respectfully submits that the court may conduct a bench trial solely to resolve the issue of whether the Transocean petitioners are entitled to relief under the limitation statute," Wittmann wrote.

"Any issue beyond the precise issue under the limitation statute must then be tried to a jury," he wrote.

"Each jury trial should involve the claims of selected claimants and resolve all issues related to their claims, including allocation of fault and indemnity," he wrote.

"Cameron submits that properly conducted jury trials are in fact far more efficient than the bench trial proposed by other parties," he wrote.

Others who proposed trial plans on June 6 recommended a wider scope.

A plaintiff steering committee urged Barbier to examine negligence, gross negligence, and willful misconduct.

Stephen Herman of New Orleans and James Roy of Lafayette wrote that he should allocate fault among all defendants for the explosion and the oil spill that followed.

They wrote that he should determine the total number of barrels released.

They wrote that he should decide whether to hold one or more defendants liable for punitive damages.

They wrote that bench trials are traditionally available under admiralty jurisdiction.

They wrote that the Oil Pollution Act does not expressly provide for trial by jury.

The United States proposed a double trial, combining the limitation petition with the government's claims under the Oil Pollution Act and Clean Water Act.

Department of Justice senior attorney Steven O'Rourke called for joint trial on gross negligence, willful misconduct, and violations of law.

He wrote that the cases would remain separate and distinct.

"If the United States' action is not joined for trial of the common core factual issues, the result could be the requirement of a second trial of equal or nearly equal length involving the same witnesses and the same exhibits," O'Rourke wrote.

According to Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, the limitation trial won't impact state claims for natural resource damage, civil penalties and economic loss.

"The court has essentially put those matters on hold," Allan Kanner of New Orleans wrote for Caldwell.

Kanner wrote that in preparation for trial, Barbier should decide whether the rig was a vessel or a facility, or both, for purposes of the Oil Pollution Act.

"The state believes early judicial resolution of this issue will materially advance OPA proceedings," he wrote.

"Unless and until this is done, Transocean will never engage in good faith settlement negotiations," he wrote.

For Transocean, Kerry Miller of New Orleans agreed that the limitation trial needed no jury but recommended subsequent proceedings on individual damages and on application of the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and racketeering law.

Three defendants kept open the option of jury trials.

For BP, Don Haycraft of New Orleans wrote that the United States reserved the right to assert additional claims.

"It is impossible to know at this point whether any such claims would be inconsistent with a bench trial," he wrote.

For Halliburton Energy Services, cement contractor on the rig, Donald Godwin of Dallas wrote that claims BP filed against Halliburton might require jury trials.

For Anadarko Petroleum, Ky Kirby of Washington wrote that Barbier must sever claims under the Clean Water Act and set them aside for jury trial later in the proceedings.

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