"Judge Barbier has managed the case actively and moved it along toward trial pretty quickly," Erichson said.
In December, Barbier gave final approval to a settlement between BP and Plaintiffs' Steering Committee lawyers representing Gulf Coast businesses and residents who claim the spill cost them money. BP estimates it will pay roughly $8.5 billion to resolve tens of thousands of these claims, but the deal doesn't have a cap.
BP resolved a Justice Department criminal probe by agreeing to plead guilty to manslaughter and other charges and pay $4 billion in criminal penalties. Deepwater Horizon rig owner Transocean Ltd. reached a separate settlement with the federal government, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge and agreeing to pay $1.4 billion in criminal and civil penalties.
But there's plenty left for the lawyers to argue about at trial, given that the federal government and Gulf states haven't resolved civil claims against the company that could be worth more than $20 billion.
The Justice Department and private plaintiffs' attorneys have said they would prove BP acted with gross negligence before the blowout of its Macondo well on April 20, 2010.
BP's civil penalties would soar if Barbier agrees with that claim.
BP, meanwhile, argues the federal government's estimate of how much oil spewed from the well — more than 200 million gallons — is inflated by at least 20 percent. Clean Water Act penalties are based on how many barrels of oil spilled.
Barbier plans to hold the trial in at least two phases and may issue partial rulings at the end of each. The first phase, which could last three months, is designed to determine what caused the blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved. The second phase will address efforts to stop the flow of oil from the well and aims to determine how much crude spilled into the Gulf.