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Judge postpones trial over BP oil spill; Progress made toward settlement

A judge has delayed the federal trial over the nation's worst offshore oil disaster until next Monday, saying Sunday that BP PLC was making progress in settlement talks with a committee overseeing scores of lawsuits, according to people close to the case.

Two people close to the case told the Associated Press that the decision was made Sunday during a conference call between parties in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill case and U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the call.

They said the judge told those on the call that BP and the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee were "making some progress" in their settlement talks. The steering committee is overseeing lawsuits filed by individuals and businesses following the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig April 20, 2010, in the gulf. The blast killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from the blown-out well, soiling miles of coastline.

However, the judge did not mention the status of settlement talks between other parties, nor did he mention any figures being discussed, according to the people close to the case.

The brief order issued by Barbier on Sunday said only that the delay was granted "for reasons of judicial efficiency and to allow the parties to make further progress in their settlement discussions."

Among other things, the trial that is now set to begin next Monday is meant to determine the penalties that need to be paid by BP and other companies involved in the oil spill. Billions of dollars are at stake.

BP and the Plaintiffs Steering Committee confirmed in a joint news release that the trial, which was to have started today, had been delayed. It said the oil giant and the committiee were working to reach an agreement that would "fairly compensate people and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill."

If no settlement is reached, Barbier will preside over a three-phase trial that could last the better part of a year. The first phase is designed to identify the causes of the deadly blowout and to assign percentages of fault to the companies involved in the ill-fated drilling project.

Financial analysts estimate BP could wind up paying anywhere from $15 billion to $30 billion over the lawsuits, and BP has estimated in regulatory filings that its total liability for the disaster is $40 billion.

An AP analysis found that the company could conceivably face up to $52 billion in environmental fines and compensation if the judge determines the company was grossly negligent.

The trial may not yield major revelations about the causes of the disaster, but the outcome could bring much-needed relief for tens of thousands of people and businesses whose livelihoods were disrupted by the spill.

Relatives of the 11 people killed in the Deepwater Horizon blast say they are hoping for something more elusive: justice for lost loved ones.

Sheryl Revette, whose husband, Dewey, was among the 11 killed when BP PLC's Macondo well blew out and triggered an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, doesn't have anything to gain financially from the trial. She wants an apology from the oil giant, something she said she hasn't received yet.

"I've never heard a word from them," said Revette, 48, of State Line, Miss. "But an apology isn't going to bring my husband back."