* Judge likely to approve settlement soon-legal experts
* About 13,000 objectors challenging settlement grounds
By Chris Baltimore
NEW ORLEANS, Nov 8 BP Plc and lawyers
representing over 100,000 individuals and businesses claiming
economic and medical damages from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil
spill on Thursday urged a U.S. judge to approve a proposed $7.8
billion class-action settlement.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier initially approved the deal
in May, but called the "fairness hearing" to weigh objections
from about 13,000 claimants challenging the settlement to
resolve some of BP's liability for the worst offshore oil spill
in U.S. history.
BP still faces civil and potential criminal liability
charges brought by the U.S. government and U.S. states.
Barbier did not issue a final ruling at Thursday's hearing
in a New Orleans court, but he appears poised to grant final
approval to the deal in the coming days, legal experts said.
"We shouldn't lose sight of the forest for the trees,"
Barbier said at the end of the hearing, saying that some
objections "were not frankly made in good faith and bordered on
London-based BP's Macondo well spewed 4.9 million barrels of
oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 87 days. The
torrent fouled shorelines from Texas to Alabama and eclipsed the
1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in severity.
Lawyers for some affected parties say they will "opt out" of
the deal, reached in March between BP and lawyers representing
plaintiffs ranging from restaurateurs, hoteliers, and oyster men
who lost money from the spill to recovery workers and coastal
residents claiming medical damages from the cleanup.
"The settlement zones are inherently unfair," said Stuart
Smith, a lawyer for Florida business owners, referring to
boundaries set by the deal which are meant to compensate
businesses and homeowners based on their proximity to the spill.
Barbier said he had no authority to tweak the deal as
written, but merely to approve or reject it.
"It sounds to me that maybe your gripe is that you weren't
in the room and that you would have done things differently,"
Barbier told one of the objectors' lawyers. "I don't think there
is such a thing as a perfect settlement."
Jim Roy, a lead plaintiffs' attorney, said the deal would
resolve "well in excess of 100,000 claims." BP in March
estimated the deal's cost at $7.8 billion, but damages are
uncapped and could rise to far exceed that, Roy said.
"This is not a bunch of insurance adjustors trying to save
money for BP," Roy said of the deal, but rather "a way to
quickly get a fair and objectively determined settlement and to
avoid litigating for potentially 20 or more years such as what
happened in the Exxon Valdez."
Rick Godfrey, an attorney for BP, said the settlement should
not be delayed by the "miniscule" number of objectors.
"BP has no intent of allowing justice to be delayed, much
less denied, as a result of this tragic event," he said.
Barbier is likely to approve the settlement in coming days,
said Blaine LeCesne, a law professor at Loyola University,
citing the judge's initial approval of the deal as the strongest
signal of its eventual fate.
"It's inevitably going to leave some people unsatisfied,"
LeCesne said. "But it casts a very wide net and includes a
remarkably high number of potential claimants."
BP has been locked in a year-long legal battle with the U.S.
government and Gulf Coast states to settle billions of dollars
in civil and potential criminal liability from the explosion
aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and
caused the massive spill that soiled the shorelines of four Gulf
Absent a far-reaching settlement, Barbier will preside over
a sprawling three-part non-jury hearing to decide BP's liability
for the spill, now set to begin on Feb. 25, 2013.