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Thousands of potential new plaintiffs are filing lawsuits in New Orleans federal court before a court-issued deadline of today (Wednesday) to make filings preserving the right to sue companies involved in last year's massive oil spill in the Gulf.  Potential plaintiffs have been streaming into the courthouse to drop off the completed three-page forms by hand,  with nearly 62,000 forms—preliminary paperwork protecting their right to sue—already have been filed, with about 2,300 arriving in the past week, the clerk said midday Tuesday.

If the potential plaintiffs eventually file suit, they would join the roughly 350 lawsuits already filed before U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans, where the litigation has been consolidated.

Plaintiffs in those and other lawsuits include fishermen, shrimpers, and restaurant and resort owners seeking compensation for economic losses from the spill. Others include rig workers who were injured or the families of workers killed in the explosion that led to the massive oil spill.

Wednesday's deadline is tied to participation in the first major court action in the case, a trial set for February 2012 in which Transocean is seeking to limit its liability in the spill. BP, Transocean and others are blaming each other over the cause of the explosion and spill.

Companies involved in the spill also are facing court deadlines Wednesday to file suits against one another hoping to limit their ultimate legal payout for the disaster. Transocean is seeking to limit its liability under a maritime law to about $27 million, the estimated value of the rig that was destroyed. At the trial, the judge may parse out liabilities for all the companies.

Instead of filing a lawsuit, anyone affected by the spill can present evidence of their losses to Washington, D.C., attorney Kenneth Feinberg who is administering BP's $20 billion compensation fund. Claimants who receive payments through Mr. Feinberg forgo a right to sue. Mr. Feinberg has paid out $3.9 billion toward 857,000 claims from about 500,000 individuals and businesses. He announced Tuesday he had made one of the larger final settlements to date of $44.8 million to Omega Protein Corp., which suffered economic losses in the spill. The fund is scheduled to close down in August 2013. (WSJ, 4/20/2011)