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The BP oil spill has prompted a number of lawsuits against the company. However, those lawsuits are now in jeopardy of facing a legal limbo as a Department of Justice probe could temporarily bring the lawsuits to a halt. The U.S. Justice Department opened the investigation to determine whether there has been any criminal wrongdoing.
Once the government begins a criminal investigation, the companies involved in the lawsuits will have a legally valid reason to stop cooperating in the civil suits. Anything they offer could be used against them in a criminal trial. Individuals can simply "take the fifth" and refuse to answer questions.
A plaintiffs lawyer involved in the civil lawsuits, believes that the criminal investigation could detract from lawsuits.
"Criminal investigations... take years before they're over. ... If I want to take a deposition, and someone says, 'I'm under investigation by the DOJ. I can take the Fifth,' there's nothing I can do about it."
However not everyone believes that a criminal investigation will hurt plaintiffs' lawsuits. "Anything that they uncover could be used in our cases," said Scott Summy, whose Dallas firm has eight oil spill lawsuits. "That could also have a bearing on what judges think, what the public thinks -- that could help mold public opinion," Summy said.
In the end it becomes a bit of a tradeoff, as on the one hand, a government investigation might uncover solid evidence of wrongdoing, even criminal convictions, bolstering the civil lawsuits. On the other hand, it could cause the companies involved in the BP oil spill to become tight lipped and resist cooperation, possibly dragging the cases out for years, if not decades.