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Gulf oil spill lawsuits may be heard by panel of judges

GULFPORT, Miss. — New lawsuits filed here in federal court are creating common groups of plaintiffs who could become sub-categories in multijurisdictional litigation over oil-spill complaints.

A Pass Christian woman, for instance, fears losing the use and enjoyment of her beachfront property and decreasing property values. A certified diver, a fishing blogger and a man who has a salt-water fishing license also are among Coast residents named as plaintiffs in other complaints that seek class-action status.

Twelve lawsuits have been filed here since April 30 on behalf of groups including fishermen, seafood processors and charter boat captains. Attorneys in seven of those cases have moved to dismiss the lawsuits and transfer the complaints to the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

More than 70 federal lawsuits have been filed in the gulf region. BP has asked that they be handled by a panel of judges in Houston. The panel will discuss the possibility at its next meeting in July.

The process of using a judicial panel to resolve a large number of complaints following a disaster is not uncommon, said Hattiesburg attorney Marvin Morris. The number of complaints and common types of complaints are essential elements in getting a class-action lawsuit certified, he said, or moving the complaints under a judicial panel.

“A judge separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, in determining which cases have merit and which do not, and any that are frivolous,” said Morris.

He is a member of the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group, which cleared a major hurdle for fishermen in federal court on Friday. The group won a temporary restraining order that holds BP responsible for the safety of commercial fishermen hired for cleanup and prohibits BP from limiting fishermen’s rights to file their own complaints.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., on Tuesday introduced legislation that could authorize $20 million in grants to help Gulf residents file claims with BP or the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Landrieu expects the grants could help provide technical assistance so claims aren’t denied on the basis of missing information or lack of documentation.

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