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A federal judge in New Orleans is preparing for one of the largest and most complex environmental cases ever to come to court. Testimony is scheduled to begin late this month involving the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. That disaster on a drilling rig led to a gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. The case combines more than 500 lawsuits in one proceeding designed to determine who is responsible. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Bon Secours, Alabama is a coastal community still struggling to come back from the Gulf oil spill.

CHRIS NELSON: It's an old French fishing village. The rough translation is safe harbor, or good harbor.

ELLIOTT: That's Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries, a Gulf seafood processing company run by his family for four generations.

NELSON: This is our shipping dock. It's pretty busy on a Monday morning.

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ELLIOTT: Big burlap sacks of Louisiana oysters are dumped onto a conveyor belt, where workers sort out which ones will be boxed to be served on the half-shell and which will go to the shucking room to be sold by the gallon.

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ELLIOTT: It's busy, but not at full throttle.

NELSON: We're nowhere near back to where we were before.

ELLIOTT: Before the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

NELSON: You know, when we first heard of the explosion and 11 people killed, that was awful and we felt badly for those families and knew that it was a terrible tragedy. But then we began to hear that, hey, there's another problem, and that's that they may not be able to shut off the oil leak.

ELLIOTT: The uncontrolled well spewed some 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. Harvest closures shut down processing for much of the spring and summer. Then when he was able to get oysters and shrimp again, Nelson says, nobody wanted to buy them.

NELSON: The biggest impact is people's loss of trust in the goodness of what we have, the wholesomeness of what we have.

ELLIOTT: Despite government monitoring and assurances that Gulf seafood is not contaminated, his business is still down about 40 percent. And that's why Nelson joined the hundreds of thousands of other claimants from the five Gulf states, ranging from oyster harvesters and shrimpers to waiters and housekeepers. There are also tourism interests, cleanup workers and federal, state and local governments all asking a New Orleans federal judge to see to it that they are made whole. About 193,000 people have taken final settlements from a $20 billion compensation fund set up by BP, but Chris Nelson says the future is uncertain, because no one can predict the final impact of the Gulf oil spill.

NELSON: I think there's a misconception that, hey, you had the claims process, you know, what more do you guys need? And I think there's a complete lack of understanding that, yeah, you know, maybe the fender on the car got fixed and they gave me a Band-Aid for my head where I hit it on the steering wheel, but all the aftereffects that we may not even completely understand what they're going to be and that we understand there are some aftershocks that can occur, we've got to be insured against that in some way.

ELLIOTT: But before the court attempts to put a number on damages - which some have estimated could be upwards of $25 billion - it has to sort out exactly what happened offshore. Martin Davies is director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. He says the first phase of the trial will focus on the activities of the oil company BP, rig owner Transocean, and contractors, including cementer Halliburton and Cameron, the maker of the failed blow-out preventer.

MARTIN DAVIES: Basically: Who caused what? Who's responsible for the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and the release of oil from the well?

ELLIOTT: He says eventually, the allocation of damages will depend on the rather murky question of whether the companies were grossly negligent.

DAVIES: It's not a very clearly defined phrase. People - there's a lot of law about what's negligence. There's not so much law about what's gross negligence.

ELLIOTT: BP Chief Executive Robert Dudley recently spoke to investors about the upcoming trial.

ROBERT DUDLEY: We do not believe BP was grossly negligent. We have confidence in our case, and we look forward to presenting evidence when the trial begins.

ELLIOTT: But he also said BP would like to put the litigation to rest.

DUDLEY: We're ready to settle, if we can do so on fair and reasonable terms. But we are preparing vigorously for trial.

ELLIOTT: Attorneys general in the five Gulf states say they are open to settling environmental damage claims. But Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says any deal would have to consider future fallout.

JIM HOOD: It will be on terms that the scientists tell me that we can foresee that will allow us to recoup what we're actually owed if we see damages down the line seven, eight, 10 years down the line.

ELLIOTT: None of the parties involved in the case, including the U.S. Justice Department, will discuss settlement negotiations, but many observers expect some sort of a deal before the trial gets too far along.

DANIEL BECNEL, JR.: I can guarantee you this will not go to verdict. The question is: What will the amount of the settlement be?

ELLIOTT: Daniel Becnel, Jr. is a plaintiffs' lawyer in Reserve, Louisiana who's been involved in other major tort settlements. Despite filing one of the first lawsuits over the BP spill, he doesn't think the upcoming trial in New Orleans is necessary.

JR.: We don't really need a trial. Why do we need a trial to apportion fault? That's what this trial is all about, to apportion fault and for potential punitive damages. BP has admitted liability, and they can pay it.

ELLIOTT: He says the evidence about what happened has already come out during government investigations of the disaster. He's advising most of his clients to take a final settlement from the BP claims fund and opt out of any global settlement that might come from the case in New Orleans.

JR.: This is a giant, giant money grab by the plaintiffs' bar that's going to come out of the pocket of innocent victims.

ELLIOTT: But lawyers involved in the trial say it will be the first real opportunity for oil spill victims to hear the whole story. Rhon Jones is with the Montgomery, Alabama law firm Beasley Allen, and is part of the plaintiffs' steering committee, a group of lawyers coordinating the case.

RHON JONES: There's only one place where a waitress or a shrimper can be on equal footing with a company the size of BP, and that's a courtroom.

ELLIOTT: He expects the trial will uncover new details about what went wrong. Chris Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries says he just wants the truth.

NELSON: How careless were they, or was this just an unfortunate accident?

ELLIOTT: He may be able to get his answer as the case goes to trial as scheduled on February 27th. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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INSKEEP: We're going to hear more on this story this afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, when the father of an oil rig worker killed on the Deepwater Horizon looks forward to a public accounting of who's to blame. And as always, you can follow this program on Facebook and on Twitter, where we are @MORNINGEDITION and @NPRInskeep.

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