Blawgletter got back this morning (around 3:00 a.m.) from our first-ever trip to Boise. We saw a Great Many lawyers.
We and they had come to watch, and some of us to present, argument about what the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation should do with big cases.
In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, MDL No. 2179, headed the list. In re BP P.L.C. Securities Litigation, MDL No. 2185, ran a distant second.
The Oil Spill case took over an hour. We lost count of the lawyers who argued, but we think they topped 25. Nobody had more than six or so minutes.
British Petroleum, Transocean, Halliburton, and the other defendants lined up for Houston, in the Southern District of Texas.
The U.S. government and a bunch of plaintiffs favored New Orleans, in the Eastern District of Lousiana.
Others went for places in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and (we think) South Carolina.
Somebody even made a bid for bringing in a judge from somewhere else, such as New York.
The pitches for The Big Easy came in many flavors — proximity to the rig, propinquity of plaintiffs, centrality in the arc of the spill and therefore relative convenience for plaintiffs and non-party witnesses, impact of the spill on the local and state economy and environment, desire and willingness of the federal trial bench to commit the resources necessary to handle sprawling litigation that will take five or more years of full-time work to resolve. All that made sense.
The arguments for Houston made sense, too. Defendants maintan their U.S. headquarters and keep their top U.S. executives there. Decisions about and documentation regarding Deepwater Horizon emanated from Houston. The defendants have united in preferring it. Some plaintiffs favor it. A "limitation" action has progressed towards resolution there. And the Houston judges seems every bit as willing as their New Orleans counterparts to do the work.
We listened and looked for clues about which way the Panel leaned. Before and after, we talked with some of the lawyers about what they thought the Panel would do.
In our view, the decision depends less on objective factors than on how the members of the Panel resolve visceral issues. Some may sense that, because the offshore oil industry made the mess and wants Houston, sending the cases to Houston would look like rewarding Big Oil. Some may also feel that the federal bench in New Orleans deserves a chance to show itself capable of fairly litigating disputes over a disaster that rivals Katrina in its devestation to the community.
The Panel members may, on the other hand, bristle at the idea that they might let sentiment against the oil industry affect their decision while worrying that centralizing cases in New Orleans might appear to favor plaintiffs.
We think the Panel will send the bulk of Oil Spill to New Orleans. So did the most of our colleagues. But we'll see.