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Judge praises spill claims efforts

A judge in New Orleans said he was leaning in favour of granting preliminary approval to a proposed class-action settlement that would resolve billions of dollars in claims against BP over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

After hearing BP and a team of plaintiffs' lawyers outline the proposed deal, US District Judge Carl Barbier said he planned to rule within a week.

Judge Barbier will hold a "fairness hearing" later this year, possibly in November, before deciding whether to give his final approval.

The proposed agreement is intended to resolve more than 100,000 claims by people and businesses who blame economic losses on the nation's worst offshore oil spill.

"This has been a very impressive effort on the part of counsel ... in terms of getting to where you all are today," the judge said, noting that litigation over the Exxon Valdez spill took about 20 years to resolve. "I did not intend for this case to go on for 20 years, not with me in charge of it."

London-based BP estimates it would pay about 7.8 billion dollars (£4.8 billion) to resolve these claims, but the settlement would not be capped and would probably be one of the largest class-action settlements.

Judge Barbier stressed that his preliminary approval would mark only a "starting point", with objections to the deal to be considered in coming months. The proposal was announced on March 2 and is spelled out in hundreds of pages of documents filed last week.

Objections already have begun trickling in. In a court filing earlier on Wednesday, a group of commercial fishermen and industry groups said it saw "significant flaws" in the settlement and claimed it would not protect most fishermen against future risks to fisheries.

BP has agreed to pay 2.3 billion dollars (£1.4 billion) for seafood-related claims by commercial fishing vessel owners, captains and deckhands. The settlement also would compensate other categories of losses, including lost wages, businesses losses, property damage and damage to vessels that worked on the spill cleanup.

The agreement calls for paying medical claims by clean-up workers and others who say they suffered illnesses from exposure to the oil or chemicals used to disperse it. In addition, BP has agreed to spend 105 million dollars (£65.6 million) over five years to set up a Gulf Coast health outreach programme and pay for medical examinations.

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