BP damage claims process presents challenges to Gulf residents
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Oil executives are back on the hot seat today. Federal investigators trying to determine the cause of the spill called one official from BP and two from Transocean, the company that owns the rig that exploded in the gulf. It’s the fourth hearing in the investigation, which has faced its own credibility problems. Some witnesses have failed to show up, or refused to talk. A few new hard-hitters on the panel could boost its standing. ... Also today, the oil spill damage claims process officially shifts from BP to Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the 9/11 victims fund. Feinberg has been hired to do the same for those who suffered economic losses due to the oil spill, but may find this situation even more complicated. Tanya Snyder reports.
Karen Hopkins doesn’t fish for a living, but she does fish to feed her family.
KAREN HOPKINS: Why would I live in Grand Isle, Louisiana if I didn’t fish?
Since the spill, she’s lost her job and the ability to fish for herself. She’s been diagnosed with depression for the first time. She thinks it’s unhealthy for her family to be near the water now. She wants to be compensated for her losses. But she says the claims process that’s been set up is too confusing.
HOPKINS: I called my lawyer and I gave it to him. I’m not dealing with that. It’s ridiculous. There’s too many trap questions.
All over the country – not just in the Gulf – business owners are sending in claims. Florists in Florida saying they lost money because people are having fewer beach weddings. Restaurants in Idaho say they’re paying more for seafood. Ken Feinberg has already said geographic proximity is going to be a major factor in which claims are eligible for compensation out of the $20 billion fund paid for by BP. He told Charlie Rose on PBS, this is not going to be easy.
KEN FEINBERG: Is the claimant eligible? And if she or he is eligible, has she or he corroborated the claim sufficiently so we can calculate a dollar value?
Many people who make a living off fishing don’t keep good records. They sell fish by the side of the road and will have trouble proving what they made last year so they can figure out what they’ve lost this year.
Dean Blanchard runs one of the largest shrimping operations in the gulf. He says the extreme cold last winter set him up for a record-breaking shrimping season. This should have been a banner year.
DEAN BLANCHARD: In 2000, on our last big season, I had four competitors. Now I’m sitting here by myself. I got no competitors. I got machines that take the shrimp off the boat that I didn’t have in 2000. So I’ve been working 28 years to get to this one year right here. So is Feinberg smart enough to put it all together and really pay me what I lost? I don’t think so. You know?
Blanchard also worries that it’s impossible to know what the effects of the oil and the dispersants will be a few years down the line. He doesn’t know how many hard years he’ll have and if he’ll be compensated in the future. The fund expires in three years.
BP has been slow at getting money out the door. Some Gulf Coast fisher people think the company’s been holding out because it needed to give a full $20 billion to Feinberg to disperse, and didn’t want to pay out too much on top of that.
But Feinberg has promised to make the system faster and more user-friendly. He wants to ease some requirements and get through the backlog quickly.
Feinberg says you can’t underestimate the anger and frustration of the people in the Gulf right now. And some say it’s his understanding of the emotion behind this claims process that has made Feinberg such an effective administrator before. Ninety-seven percent of eligible victims participated in the 9/11 fund and were paid.
Torts lawyer Sheila Scheuerman says that when going through the 9/11 claims, Feinberg created two tracks: one for people who wanted the quickest possible processing and payment, and one for people who wanted to be heard.
SHEILA SCHEUERMAN: The claimants actually got to appear in person. They didn’t have to have a lawyer and they could present whatever evidence or testimony they wanted. They weren’t limited by rules of evidence. They could present pictures of their loved one, or videos, or live testimony if they wanted to come in and TALK about their loved one.
Scheuerman says it’s not clear yet whether Feinberg will set up hearings like these for the BP spill victims or whether he’ll just focus on cutting checks.
Some might decide not to participate this time. By accepting payment through the claims process, they’ll have to waive their right to take legal action against BP. And some might decide to take their chances in court rather than take what BP – and Ken Feinberg – are offering.
Tanya Snyder, FSRN