NEW ORLEANS — BP PLC has agreed to settle lawsuits from thousands of fishermen who lost work and others who claimed they were harmed by the oil giant's 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster, in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
The oil giant said Friday it expects to pay out at least $7.8 billion. It expects the money to come from the $20 billion compensation fund it previously set up.
As a result of the agreement that will be filed with the court for approval, the trial that was to begin Monday has been postponed for a second time, Judge Carl Barbier said. No new date was set.
There also was no mention in his order of anything about the status of BP's talks and the federal government, involved states. The judge said the settlement will require changes to the trial plan.
The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana in April, 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil from an undersea well owned by BP. The rig, owned by Transocean Ltd., sank two days later.
The spill soiled tidal estuaries and beaches, killing wildlife and shutting vast areas of the Gulf to commercial fishing. Judge Barbier was assigned to oversee nearly all the federal claims spawned by the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.
After several attempts to cap the well failed, engineers were successful July 15, halting the flow of oil into the Gulf after more than 85 days.
The main targets of litigation resulting from the explosion and spill were BP, Transocean, cement contractor Halliburton Co., and Cameron International, maker of the well's failed blowout preventer.
BP, the majority owner of the well that blew out, leased the rig from Transocean.
The Justice Department sued some of the companies involved, seeking billions of dollars for economic and environmental damage.
The department opened a separate criminal investigation, but that probe hasn't resulted in charges.
The companies also sued each other, although some of those cases were settled last year.
In one of the pending lawsuits, BP has sued Transocean for at least $40 billion in damages.
Trial preparations have produced a staggering 72 million pages of documents and included depositions of more than 300 witnesses. The trial also is designed to determine whether Transocean can limit what it pays those making claims under maritime law.
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 and money-saving decisions by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that created unacceptable risk.
But the panel also concluded that the mistakes were the result of systemic problems, not necessarily the fault of any one individual.
In September, 2011, however, a team of Coast Guard officials and federal regulators issued a report that concluded BP bears ultimate responsibility for the spill.
The report found BP violated federal regulations, ignored crucial warnings, and made bad decisions during the cementing of the well a mile beneath the Gulf.
BP has repeatedly said it accepts some responsibility for the spill and will pay what it owes, while urging other companies to pay their share.
BP established a $20 billion claims fund to resolve many claims out of court.
As of Jan. 17, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility has paid out nearly $6 billion from the fund to more than 569,000 individuals and businesses.
BP waived a $75 million cap on its liability for certain economic damage claims under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, though it denied gross negligence.