BP will plead guilty to manslaughter and other charges and pay a record $4 billion in criminal penalties for the company's role in the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance heard testimony from relatives of 11 workers, including Blair Manuel of Eunice, who died when BP's blown-out Macondo well triggered an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and started the spill.
Neither the Justice Department nor BP presented arguments to the judge before her decision in New Orleans.
Vance said the plea deal was "just punishment" considering the risks of litigation for BP and the alternatives to the settlement. She told victims' relatives who were in court that she read their "truly gut-wrenching" written statements and factored their words into her decision.
She said she also believes BP executives should have personally apologized to family members.
"I think BP should have done that out of basic humanity," she said.
The deal doesn't resolve the federal government's civil claims against BP. The company could pay billions more in penalties for environmental damage.
BP separately agreed to a settlement with lawyers for Gulf Coast residents and businesses who claim the spill cost them money. BP estimates the deal with private attorneys will cost the company roughly $7.8 billion.
For the criminal settlement, BP agreed to pay nearly $1.3 billion in fines.
The criminal settlement also includes payments of nearly $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences.
In a court filing before the hearing, attorneys for BP and the Justice Department argued that the plea agreement imposes "severe corporate punishment" and will deter BP and other deep-water drilling companies from allowing another disaster to occur.
The Justice Department has reached a separate settlement with rig owner Transocean Ltd. that resolves the government's civil and criminal claims over the Swiss-based company's role in the disaster.
Transocean agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Clean Water Act and pay $1.4 billion in civil and criminal penalties.
U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo has scheduled a Feb. 14 hearing to decide whether to accept that criminal settlement. A different judge will decide whether to accept Transocean's civil settlement.
Four current or former BP employees have been indicted on separate criminal charges. BP rig supervisors Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine are charged with manslaughter, accused of repeatedly disregarding abnormal high-pressure readings that should have been glaring indications of trouble just before the blowout.
David Rainey, BP's former vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, was charged with withholding information from Congress about the amount of oil that was gushing from the well.
Former BP engineer Kurt Mix was charged with deleting text messages about the company's spill response.
A series of government investigations have blamed the April 20, 2010, blowout on time-saving, cost-cutting decisions by BP and its partners on the drilling project.