BP, plaintiffs reach Gulf oil spill settlement

FILE - In this April 21, 2010 photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews spray water on the burning remnants of BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. The gargantuan legal bill for the 2010 catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is coming due for BP as a federal trial opens Monday, Feb. 27, 2012 to determine the companyâ??s liability for the blowout of its Macondo well. On the cusp of trial, phalanxes of lawyers, company officials and state officials spent the final hours in high-stakes settlement talks that law experts believed could still yield a deal right before the courtroom doors open Monday morning. AP Photo/US Coast Guard, File

Updated 11:09 PM ET

(AP) NEW ORLEANS - BP PLC reached a settlement late Friday night with a committee representing the largest group of plaintiffs suing over the 2010 Gulf oil spill, a federal judge said. Specific terms have not been released.

There was no mention in the order by Judge Carl Barbier of the status of BP's talks with the federal government, involved states or individual plaintiffs not represented by the committee.

Phone messages left for representatives with BP or the plaintiff's steering committee were not immediately returned Friday night.

As a result of the settlement that will be filed with the court for approval, the trial that was scheduled to begin Monday has been postponed for a second time, Barbier said. No new date was immediately set.

The settlement will require substantial changes to the current trial plan but he didn't elaborate, the judge said.

The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana in April 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil from an undersea well owned by BP. The rig, owned by Transocean Ltd., sank two days later.

Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton Co. have rejected recent overtures to settle their claims with BP and pay billions of dollars, according to two people close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential.

"Delays or deals made by other players do not change the facts of this case and we are fully prepared to argue the merits of our case based on those facts," Transocean said in a statement.

The spill soiled sensitive tidal estuaries and beaches, killing wildlife and shutting vast areas of the Gulf to commercial fishing. Barbier, in New Orleans, was assigned to oversee nearly all of the federal claims spawned by the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

After several attempts to cap the well failed, engineers finally were successful on July 15, halting the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico after more than 85 days.

The main targets of litigation resulting from the explosion and spill were BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron International, maker of the well's failed blowout preventer. BP, the majority owner of the well that blew out, was leasing the rig from Transocean.

The Justice Department sued some of the companies involved in the ill-fated drilling project, seeking to recover billions of dollars for economic and environmental damage. The department opened a separate criminal investigation, but that probe hasn't resulted in any charges.

The companies also sued each other, although some of those cases were settled last year. In one of the pending lawsuits, BP has sued Transocean for at least $40 billion in damages.

Trial preparations have produced a staggering 72 million pages of documents and included depositions of more than 300 witnesses. The trial also is designed to determine whether Transocean can limit what it pays those making claims under maritime law.

A series of government investigations have spread blame for the disaster.

In January 2011, a presidential commission found that the spill was caused by time-saving and money-saving decisions by BP, Halliburton and Transocean that created unacceptable risk. But the panel also concluded that the mistakes were the result of systemic problems, not necessarily the fault of any one individual.

In September 2011, however, a team of Coast Guard officials and federal regulators issued a report that concluded BP bears ultimate responsibility for the spill. The report found BP violated federal regulations, ignored crucial warnings and made bad decisions during the cementing of the well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

BP has repeatedly said it accepts some responsibility for the spill and will pay what it owes, while urging other companies to pay their share.

BP established a $20 billion claims fund to resolve many claims out of court. As of Jan. 17, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility has paid out nearly $6 billion from the fund to more than 569,000 individuals and businesses.

BP waived a $75 million cap on its liability for certain economic damage claims under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, though it denied any gross negligence.

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