The Justice Department on Wednesday is expected to seek to join civil lawsuits stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the first major federal legal action in the disaster, according to people familiar with the matter.
By joining the private litigation, Justice Department lawyers are positioning themselves to play a major role in the coming litigation, including depositions of key witnesses. That could aid the government's continuing probe into the disaster aimed at building a civil and possibly a criminal case against the companies involved, these people said.
The Justice Department declined to comment, as did BP.
The government's move is the first salvo of what is likely to be a lengthy and complex legal fight as it and the companies involved try to assign blame for the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The disaster killed 11 people and resulted in an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico before BP PLC plugged the leak on July 15.
Dozens of private-party lawsuits have been consolidated in so-called multidistrict litigation in federal court in New Orleans, representing claims against well-owner BP and its contractors for damages from the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Attorneys for those private party plaintiffs also are expected to file a new combined civil suit in federal court in New Orleans laying out their allegations against BP and other defendants.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, in New Orleans, has a set a status conference Friday where attorneys are expected to hammer out logistical issues tied to depositions in the case.
In a Justice Department complaint, federal lawyers are expected to allege violations of environmental-protection regulations, which could trigger penalties under laws including the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act, the people familiar with the matter said.
In June, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department was conducting a broad probe into a wide range of possible criminal and civil violations in the disaster. Law-enforcement officials said a major focus was violations of environmental-protection laws.
Most of the government's legal strategy isn't yet public. But government lawyers in recent months have tussled with a major BP contractor, Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig destroyed in the incident, over Transocean's attempts to limit its liability. Transocean didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
President Barack Obama appointed a commission to investigate the causes of the disaster, with a report due to the president in January.
Over the past decade, BP has had several run-ins with the Justice Department, including a deadly accident at a Texas refinery, and a pipeline leak in Alaska, that are expected to prompt U.S. lawyers to seek stiffer penalties, officials said.
Copyright (c) 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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