A Bourbon Street balcony during Mardi Gras. Photo (c) Alex Demyan

(Bloomberg) — The trial over liability for BP Plc’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill was postponed to Feb. 25 so the lawyers won’t lose their accommodations to Super Bowl and Mardi Gras crowds, a New Orleans judge said.

The Super Bowl, the National Football League’s title game, is set for Feb. 3, and the last day of Mardi Gras, the pre- Lenten festival, is Feb. 12. The trial, originally set for Jan. 14, will be delayed six weeks because lawyers involved have been told they’ll be “kicked out” of their hotel rooms, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said at a hearing today.

“It makes no sense to try and start the trial Jan. 14 then suspend it,” Barbier said. “We don’t want to ruin everybody’s holidays.”

Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, declined to comment on the change in trial date.

“The day of judgment is coming,” Steve Herman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said today. “A few weeks of delay isn’t going to matter.”

The April 2010 sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig set off the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history and led to hundreds of lawsuits brought against London-based BP, owner of the well, and its partners in the project.

Economic Loss

BP agreed in March to pay an estimated $7.8 billion to resolve most private plaintiffs’ claims for economic loss, property damage and injuries. The settlement, reached days before a scheduled trial on liability for the 2010 spill, didn’t cover federal government claims and those of the Gulf Coast states.

It also didn’t cover lawsuits against Transocean Ltd., the Vernier, Switzerland-based owner and operator of the rig; and Houston-based Halliburton Co., which provided cementing services. BP’s settlement excluded claims by financial institutions, casinos, private plaintiffs in parts of Florida and Texas, and residents and businesses claiming harm from a drilling moratorium.

Barbier will conduct a fairness hearing on the $7.8 billion settlement Nov. 8. Objections to the settlement have to be filed by Nov. 1.

Barbier will consider fault for the explosion and subsequent spill at the nonjury trial now set in February. He will also determine whether BP or other defendants were grossly negligent in their actions setting off the spill.

Potential Fines

A finding of gross negligence could raise the potential fines for violations of the Clean Water Act from $1,100 a barrel to $4,300 a barrel. The U.S. has claimed that more than 4 million barrels of oil were spilled before the well was capped.

The U.S. sued BP, Transocean and BP’s partners in the well, Mitsui & Co.’s MOEX Offshore 2007 and The Woodlands, Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., alleging violations of federal pollution laws. MOEX has settled the federal claims.

BP has been in negotiations with the U.S. Justice Department to settle the pollution suit, according to a person familiar with the matter. Dean declined to comment.

These negotiations may not avert a trial, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said today.

“The way everybody’s talking, they’re revving up for a trial,” he said in an interview outside the courtroom. “Louisiana is not negotiating with BP at this time.”

Criminal Trial

The trial on liability for the 2010 spill is now set to begin the same day as a criminal trial against a former BP engineer charged with destroying evidence sought for a U.S. probe.

The jury trial of Kurt Mix, who was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting text-message strings from his mobile phone, is scheduled to start Feb. 25 in New Orleans federal court before a different judge.

Mix, who has pleaded not guilty, worked on internal BP efforts to estimate the amount of oil leaking from the Macondo well.

The lawsuits are in In Re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL- 2179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans). The criminal case is U.S. v. Mix , 12-cr-00171, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

-By Margaret Cronin Fisk and Allen Johnson Jr. Copyright 2012 Bloomberg.
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