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Jury trials for medical lawsuits over BP oil spill approved

FILE - In this June 15, 2010 file photo by Gerald Herbert, a member of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's staff wearing a glove reaches into the thick oil on the surface of the northern regions of Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish, La. With the well still gushing, BP and the various government agencies involved were jousting over just how much oil was leaking and how much had reached shore. Journalists routinely ran into resistance from cleanup contractors telling them to stay away from oiled areas, and were taken on BP-organized tours that showed relatively little damage, Herbert recalled. "The parish and the state authorities were doing their best to get journalists out there on the coast to see how things were being affected," he said. By mid-June, Herbert had been documenting the disaster for nearly two months. The oil-soaked coastline smelled powerfully like tar or asphalt in the Louisiana heat. Rather than get tired of the assignment, Herbert _ a New Orleans native _ felt compelled to keep showing the spill's ongoing effects. "The more you did this, the more disgusted you were. It got to be more and more depressing as time went on." (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

FILE – In this June 15, 2010 file photo by Gerald Herbert, a member of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staff wearing a glove reaches into the thick oil on the surface of the northern regions of Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish, La. With the well still gushing, BP and the various government agencies involved were jousting over just how much oil was leaking and how much had reached shore. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW ORLEANS — Oil spill cleanup workers who sue BP for medical problems that surface later in life have the right to make their case before a jury, a federal judge has ruled.

The BP oil spill medical settlement reached in 2012 was set up to pay cleanup workers and others who experienced certain illnesses during the immediate aftermath of the April 2010 disaster.

The settlement was designed to keep medical claims out of the courtroom. But it left an option for claimants who later develop cancer or other chronic ailments they believe were spill-related to file a separate lawsuit against BP.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said Monday that the settlement terms do not specify whether these so-called back-end litigation option cases must be tried before a judge or a jury. He also rejected BP’s argument that maritime law bars jury trials in the oil spill medical cases.

If an individual wants a jury trial, they can ask for one, he said.

“BP disagrees with the Court’s ruling and is considering its options,” company spokesman Geoff Morrell said in an email Tuesday.

The company sought to limit the cases to bench trials, which require a single judge to make a decision.

Jury trials last longer and can cost more. Some see juries as more likely to award damages to claimants.

The recent decision could affect hundreds of existing claims.

In November, Barbier ruled that the settlement required workers claiming chronic medical problems needed to be diagnosed by a doctor before April 16, 2012, a date outlined in the agreement.

BP argued the date was a hard deadline for diagnoses. Plaintiffs’ lawyers said claimants simply needed to file a claim and get the process started by that point.

The ruling could force thousands of cleanup workers out of the settlement and into back-end litigation over their claims.

 

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