There they were, all ready to go: windsor knots impeccably completed, $1,000 briefcases in hand, and practiced supercilious miens firmly in place.

No place to go
And then the lawyers in the major case by the federal government and a host of others against British oil giant BP (NYSE: BP) were effectively all dressed up with no place to go when the scheduled trial was summarily postponed by at least a week. The likely reason for the delay: Rather than endure reliving the horrendous weeks of the tragedy, BP may be preparing to throw in a settlement towel.

The action in federal court in New Orleans was to have begun Monday. In it, the numerous plaintiffs would have maintained before District Court Judge Carl Barbier that BP should be held accountable for the April 20, 2010, explosion and fire aboard Transocean's (NYSE: RIG) Deepwater Horizon rig that took 11 crewmen's lives and unleashed a gushing leak into the Gulf of Mexico that spewed crude oil for 87 days from BP's blown-out Macondo well.

Specifically, according to last Friday's issue of The Wall Street Journal, the plaintiffs claim that BP was culpable for the disaster, given its "series of inter-related failures," that it "knowingly took additional risks" on the well's cement job, and that its workers were "cavalier" in their approach to decisions concerning the well. They also maintain that the operator "failed to maintain" safe drilling procedures and that BP and Transocean "thoroughly botched" a key safety test in the well's drilling and completion process. And while the possibility of criminal charges still exists, the government's civil action is nevertheless also leveled at those overseeing the project.

BP had help
For its part, BP argues that culpability for the tragedy should be spread among several corporate participants. Clearly that contention would, at the very least, target Transocean, along with Halliburton (NYSE: HAL), which was responsible for the cementing of the well. Included on the plaintiffs' side -- in addition to the U.S. government -- are hordes of residents of the Gulf Coast, businesses operating there, and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Other companies involved with BP on the defendants' side include Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC), which had a 25% stake in the well; Transocean; Halliburton; and Cameron International (NYSE: CAM), the manufacturer of the rig's giant blowout preventer, which failed to operate when the Macondo effectively caused the explosion. At the same time, recent rulings by Judge Barbier have effectively interpreted language in the contracts between BP and both Transocean and Halliburton as effectively indemnifying the two service companies against compensatory damages.

That essentially leaves BP and Transocean holding the proverbial bag for potentially tens of billions in civil penalties, fines, and other potential charges. It also is the prime indication of why -- with the smell of an out-of-court settlement in the air -- the trial has been postponed. The delay appears to primarily involve the lawyers representing thousands of individuals and businesses that are among the plaintiffs in the case, and reportedly does not include the federal government or the two states. However, it's likely that a settlement involving one major group of plaintiffs would ultimately spread to the others.

A penchant for problems
It's amazing to consider BP's almost uncanny ability to -- putting it mildly -- step in things during the past several years. You'll likely recall the tragic 2005 explosion at the company's Texas City Refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others. In the same year, Hurricane Dennis nearly destroyed the company's massive Thunder Horse production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Righting the rig and returning it to the point that it was able to perform its designed duty required years.

In 2008, BP participated in its first contretemps with Alfa-Access-Renova, or AAR -- four Russian billionaires who comprise its joint venture partners in TNK-BP -- the country's third-largest oil company. At the time, the sniping from AAR and Russian authorities became so heated that Bob Dudley, a BP employee and CEO of the partnership -- the identical role he now plays at "snakebit" BP -- was forced to steal out of Russia and run the company from an undisclosed foreign location.

But despite his previous ruckus with the Russians, Dudley began 2011 by -- only goodness knows why -- heading back to Russia for more abuse. In early 2011, BP and OAO Rosneft, the giant Russian oil company, agreed to a novel pact wherein they'd exchange stock in each other's companies and team up to explore the promising Russian Arctic. But no sooner had the deal been inked than the AAR oligarchs claimed that the BP-Rosneft pact violated the terms of their TNK-BP shareholder agreement. With the concurrence of a London court and the Stockholm Arbitration Tribunal they were quickly able to have it scuttled.

The Foolish bottom line
With this somewhat less-than-stellar history, along with the seemingly strong likelihood that it'll be unable to escape New Orleans without agreeing -- or being ordered -- to turn over billions of dollars of its funds (saying nothing about subsequent fines or criminal charges), my inclination is to give BP a wide berth until -- if ever -- the company's fortunes begin to ascend.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named in the article above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Transocean. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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