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Deal Reached On Gulf Oil Spill Victims


Lawyers for BP, and thousands of people affected by the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill, had been expected, for a long time, to be in a New Orleans courtroom this morning for a civil trial. Instead, they're reviewing a deal to settle the case.

BP estimates it would pay nearly $8 billion in the settlement. In exchange, the company would avoid revisiting, in a courtroom, what led up to the drilling rig explosion that killed 11 men and poured massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

NPR's Jeff Brady is following the story and joins us now. And Jeff, what is in this agreement?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: You know, we don't have the actual agreement yet. BP and lawyers for the plaintiffs haven't released the full agreement, just some of the details of the deal that they worked out. But from that, we know that BP estimates it will pay these plaintiffs about $7.8 billion. That figure is a little controversial. The lawyers for the plaintiffs say there is no cap on what BP will have to pay. That's because the company won't just be cutting one big check here. Instead, a court-supervised claims process will be set up and it'll replace that Gulf Coast Claims Facility that Kenneth Feinberg has been running.

Plaintiffs' lawyers say their clients will get more money from this new program, and that's a claim that's difficult to test, right now, without details of the settlement agreement.

Also in the settlement agreement are some medical benefits for clean-up workers and Gulf Coast residents who say being exposed to oil and some of those dispersants affected their health.

MONTAGNE: And does this, then, settle all the claims against BP?

BRADY: No it doesn't. This does represent the largest group of plaintiffs that were suing BP - something more than 100,000 people hurt by the spill. These are folks in the sea food industry, tourism workers, but not everyone. Gulf Coast states and the federal government still have claims against the company. The federal claims alone, based on laws like the Clean Water Act, could cost BP billions more dollars. And the amount depends on whether the government can prove the company was grossly negligent. That's a technical term that would have to be proven in court.

There also are disputes between the companies involved in drilling the well, then those disputes have to be worked out, companies like Transocean and Halliburton.

One of the issues that was supposed to be worked out at the trial – that was going to start this morning – is how to allocate fault for the accident among the companies.

MONTAGNE: And Jeff, is it clear why BP and the plaintiffs decided to settle rather than go to trial?

BRADY: You know, I suspect a lot of these plaintiffs just want to get on with their lives. And settling the case makes it easier to do that, you know, rather than going through a trial and then any subsequent challenges to a decision.

For BP, it's pretty clear the company wanted to settle this too. You can imagine executives wanting to avoid another high-profile rehashing of what led up to the spill and how well or how badly the response went. And even just the possibility of avoiding that sent BP stock up a couple percent in London trading this morning.

Here in the last couple - in the month – well, I guess probably the last month or so we've heard plaintiff's lawyers out there saying that more information is going to come out at trial and that could damage BP's reputation further. And that may have been a negotiating tactic. The big question now is, if that's true, will that information come out? And there are going to be a lot of reporters like me out there trying to find out what that new information is, assuming it exists.

MONTAGNE: Well, I guess that leads us to just briefly, what happens next?

BRADY: Well, BP and this group of lawyers representing the plaintiffs, they have 45 days to work out details of the settlement. They'll still have to submit it to Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans and he'll have a final say over it.

MONTAGNE: Jeff, thanks very much.

BRADY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Jeff Brady. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.