NEW ORLEANS —
Barbier gave his preliminary approval to that proposed settlement in May and scheduled a February trial for the remaining claims, including those by the federal government and Gulf states.
In a pretrial court filing, the Justice Department said it would argue that BP's actions and decisions leading up to the deadly blowout amounted to gross negligence.
"We do not use words like 'gross negligence' and 'willful misconduct' lightly," a Justice Department attorney wrote. "But the fact remains that people died, many suffered injuries to their livelihood, and the Gulf's complex ecosystem was harmed as a result of BP and Transocean's bad acts or omissions."
One of Barbier's rulings possibly insulates Transocean and Halliburton from billions of dollars in liability. Barbier said Transocean and Halliburton weren't obligated to pay for many pollution claims because of contracts they signed with BP.
The Justice Department opened a criminal investigation of the spill. Until now, the only person charged was former BP engineer Kurt Mix, who was arrested in Texas in April on obstruction of justice charges. Mix is accused of deleting text messages about the company's response to the spill, not what happened before the explosion.
The companies also sued each other, although some of those cases were settled last year. BP has sued Transocean for at least $40 billion in damages.
And there are still other claims against BP from financial institutions, casinos and racetracks, insurance companies, local governments and losses caused by a government-imposed moratorium on drilling after the spill.
None of those are covered by BP's proposed settlement with the private lawyers.
A series of government investigations have spread blame for the disaster.
In January 2011, a presidential commission found that the spill was caused by time-saving, cost-cutting decisions by BP, Halliburton and Transocean that created unacceptable risk. The panel didn't point blame at any one individual, concluding the mistakes were caused by systemic problems.