New Orleans Judge Barbier Will Hear Gulf Spill Cases

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans will preside over more than 300 lawsuits related to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Barbier once held bonds issued by companies that are now the targets of the lawsuits. Law professor Mitch Crusto of Loyola University New Orleans talks to Linda Wertheimer about the long courtroom battles ahead.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A federal judicial panel has made the decision that hundreds of lawsuits related to the BP oil spill will be heard in New Orleans. U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier will now preside over all those civil suits.

To learn more about the Louisiana judge and what's likely to happen, we called Mitch Crusto, who teaches at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.

Professor Crusto, welcome.

Professor MITCH CRUSTO (Loyola University New Orleans College of Law): Well, thank you very much, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Though a number of Louisiana judges who might have been considered by the federal panel to hear this group of cases, but they recused themselves because they have financial ties to the energy industry, oil drilling, Barbier did not, even though he did have some investments in companies that are defendants in some of these cases. Why isn't it a conflict of interest for him?

Prof. CRUSTO: Well, Linda, certainly, there were proposals or requests for the judge to recuse himself. He owned some bonds in two of the defending companies. He did not accept recusal based on his reading of the criteria for recusal. One of the reasons for that is you're not really, as a bond holder, truly an owner of a company as a shareholder would be. Based on that criteria, he felt that he did not need to recuse himself, and then he subsequently sold his bond interest in those investments.

WERTHEIMER: So the fact that he sold his holdings, did that put him over the top?

Prof. CRUSTO: Well, I don't think it was really required. I think it was just a showing of good faith that he would not have a continuing relationship with the investments that were the subject of the issue.

WERTHEIMER: He was one of the judges that heard quite a few cases about Hurricane Katrina. How'd he do there?

Prof. CRUSTO: He did a very good job in balancing the various interests of homeowners, the insurance companies and the various economic interests that were in litigation. He certainly did not side always with plaintiffs, and he did not side always with insurance companies.

WERTHEIMER: What about the federal official who is going to monitor and make some decisions about who gets what in the BP oil settlement? Kenneth Feinberg, he will oversee the $20 billion compensation fund.

Prof. CRUSTO: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: Is there overlap between his work and Judge Barbier's work?

Prof. CRUSTO: There is certainly some overlap. Judge Barbier's litigation should involve personal injury claims of the oil rig workers, economic injury and loss of livelihood for shrimpers and oystermen and resort owners, property owner's damages. There's a very large pie that he would be overseeing. Mr. Feinberg's duty is to seek out and expedite claims that might be resolved without litigation. So his role could be a little bit more of a bill-paying role, where there is not legal issues of liability. Some of Feinberg's activities will reduce the amount of activity by the judge.

WERTHEIMER: One of the points of having this trust fund, this $20 billion for Mr. Feinberg to parcel out, was to speed things up. How long do you think the other side of it's going to take? I mean, how long is this legal process going to take?

Prof. CRUSTO: Well, it could take quite a long time. If you look at the Valdez spill, there was litigation up to the Supreme Court and rounds and rounds on the issue of punitive damages. This could take, quite frankly, I would say a number of years. I wouldn't want to guess - 10 to 20, perhaps, to complete the entire process, depending on issues of punitive damages and possibly those issues going to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's going to be a long time.

WERTHEIMER: Mitch Crusto teaches at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Thanks very much, Professor Crusto.

Prof. CRUSTO: Thank you, Linda.

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