By: Emily Pickrell
Thousands of Gulf Coast residents damaged by the 2010 oil spill have to decide soon whether to participate in a class action settlement, yet most still don't know what the deal will offer.
The Deepwater Horizon Claims Center, appointed by the federal judge overseeing spill litigation to coordinate claims under the settlement, reported Thursday that about 60,000 businesses and individuals have filed claims for medical or economic damages. Only 3,347, or about 5 percent, have gotten settlement offers since the center opened shop on June 4.
BP and a committee representing private plaintiffs agreed in early March to a settlement BP estimates will cost it $7.8 billion, although the deal places no cap on how much the British oil company will end up paying.
Claimants have until Nov. 1 - the deadline recently was moved back from Oct. 1 - to opt out and pursue claims on their own. Lawyers representing some say the slow pace of settlement offers makes the decision impossible.
"How in the world can anyone decide to opt in or out when they have not heard from the claims facility what their offer is?" asked Houston-based attorney Chris Dean, who said that most of the spill claimants he represents have not received any information about their claims.
The settlement provides specific monetary amounts for different categories of damage, but amounts can vary depending on the information and assumptions included in the calculations.
About 2,500 of the offers made so far have been to individual fishermen and others who operated their boats as "vessels of opportunity" to help in the response to the April 20, 2010, blowout at BP's Macondo well about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, according to Thursday's report.
The disaster destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killed 11 workers and spilled nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.
Claims administrators have said they hope to issue settlement offers or denials on 30 percent of the claims by Oct. 1.
BP cites progress
The Plaintiffs' Steering Committee, which negotiated the deal with BP, had no comment on Thursday's report, but BP said it shows the process is moving forward.
"BP appreciates the efforts of the court- supervised settlement program in establishing in short order a claims process to implement the many claims protocols set forth in the settlement agreement," spokesman Scott Dean said.
Plaintiff attorneys were more critical. They noted that when the settlement deal was announced, both sides promised the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center would improve upon an earlier system, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which had a reputation for being opaque and slow in making settlement offers.
"I'm sure everyone has the best intentions, but I have 15,000 cases, over 1,000 submitted and only one case settled," Beaumont lawyer Brent Coon said. "It's very disturbing and disconcerting that four months into this program so few cases are solved.
"It's the same accounting firms, the same lawyers, the same red tape as we had with the GCCF - I don't see any improvement, and in fact today, it feels like a big step backwards."
Hearing a month away
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans, who is overseeing litigation arising from the spill, tentatively has approved the settlement and has set a hearing for Nov. 8 to hear testimony before making a final decision.
The proposed deal only covers claims by private parties against BP. It would not resolve government complaints or claims involving cement contractor Halliburton, rig owner Transocean or other companies at the Macondo site.
Under the terms of the agreement, eligible plaintiffs potentially include hundreds of thousands of residents of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Florida.
In its status report, the Claims Center detailed the many administrative systems it has had to establish in order to begin processing claims, including setting up call centers, developing documents and training staff.
The Claims Center has said that incomplete claims are further complicating the process, with as many as 40 percent of the claims missing essential documents.
Chris Dean is skeptical of this estimate, saying that one of his clients' claims was returned for insufficient documentation, but that the tax documentation asked for does not exist for his client's line of business.
"They clearly don't have the tiger by the tail, but they are making progress," Chris Dean said. "I knew that this would take a long time to get up and running."
To see if your business may have a claim, or for help navigating the BP claims process, please contact an attorney at the Leon Law Firm at 281-980-4529.