BP Oil Spill Trial Delayed for Settlement Talks

ABC News' Mark Greenblatt reports:

On the eve of a trial that could cost BP tens of billions of dollars in damages, both sides agreed to delay the trial as talk of settling the case heated up.

The scheduled trial, which will take place in a federal court in Louisiana,  will determine BP's civil liability for the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which has been called the worst environmental disaster in American history.

BP and the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee confirmed that the U.S. District Court has adjourned by one week the beginning of the civil trial, originally scheduled to begin Monday.  Now, the trial is set to begin next Monday, March 5.

The delay is intended  to allow both sides more time to continue settlement discussions.

Environmental attorney James Periconi told ABC News that BP faces two separate motivations for accelerating settlement talks. For one, they face unusually large financial damages if a jury in the civil suit decides they are guilty of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

However, with a criminal investigation ongoing, Periconi says BP faces even stronger pressure to stop the civil suit before it goes to trial.

He says the suit, if it moves forward, deals with more than 72 million pages of documents and evidence that could be entered into the record and become available to criminal prosecutors.

If BP settles the civil suit, many of those documents may never become  available for criminal prosecutors to use in a criminal trial.

"Much evidence that would otherwise be self-incriminating on behalf of the corporations (or their officers) is available in the civil proceeding," he said.