BP oil claims process goes independent


(CNN) — The Gulf Coast Claims Facility begins accepting personal and business claims from those affected by the Gulf oil disaster, starting Monday.

BP said last week that it was no longer accepting claims as the transition to the new entity was taking place. The oil giant, which said it has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in claims so far, will continue to handle claims put in by government entities.

Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, the man in control of a $20 billion escrow account established by BP to compensate for damage, said Sunday he plans to be more generous than any court would be in determining payments.

“I take the position, if I won’t find you eligible, I believe no court will find you eligible,” Feinberg told reporters on a conference call.

However, he said if potential claimants don’t like the offer the Gulf Coast Claims Facility makes, and believes they can do better, they can file suit — although he doesn’t advise it.

“It is not in your interest to tie up you and the courts in years of uncertain, protracted litigation when there is an alternative that has been created,” he said.

Feinberg emphasized Sunday his facility is independent of both the government and BP. Claimants can file online, by fax, by mail or in person. All 35 of BP’s claims offices will remain open, but will be staffed with newly-trained workers with the goal of quickly and efficiently answering questions, Feinberg said.

On Monday, Feinberg will hold three town halls in Mississippi. Each site also will have people from the fund helping Mississippians file their claims and answering specific questions. The meetings are scheduled for Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, and Pascagoula.

Claimants can receive between one and six months’ compensation without waiving their right to sue, Feinberg said. Only those who file for and receive a lump-sum payment later in the year will waive their right to litigate. Feinberg said it is still being determined whether those people will be required to release just BP, or other potential defendants from lawsuits.

Feinberg has said eligible individuals who submit a claim will receive a check within 48 hours and eligible business claims will be paid in no more than seven days.

People who have previously filed a claim with BP will need to file a new claim form, although they will not be required to re-submit any documentation, Feinberg said. And even though a person may already have received a payment from BP, they may still be eligible under the program.

BP has paid out about $375 million in claims, he said, but “it’s very difficult to figure out how many claims were filed. Some people received a claim number and never filed a document.”

He said determining eligibility in some cases could be tricky. The farther a person or a business is from the Gulf, the less likely they are to be determined eligible. However, Feinberg said, proximity is only one factor that is being looked at. A shrimp processor located 100 miles inland that solely processes Gulf shrimp would be one example of other factors coming into play, he said.

“I don’t want to underestimate the importance of proximity to the Gulf, but we’ll have to be looking at the nature of your industry and how dependent you are on Gulf resources,” he said. “I’m going to have to draw some tough lines, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to enjoy the benefit of saying, ‘If I haven’t found you eligible, no court will find you eligible.'”

BP has done a pretty good job of claims payment in some cases, but has not been very effective in processing business claims, he said. Under his purview, “they may not always like their answer, but they’ll get their answer within seven days.”

He said he anticipates “a flood of early emergency claims” beginning Monday, but hopes the tide may be lessened by claimants’ ability to file and track their claim processing online.

He said he plans to be transparent about budgets and payments, even his own compensation. A summary narrative on how adjusters will process claims has already been made public.

Asked about Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum’s Friday letter to Feinberg criticizing the claims process under the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, Feinberg again emphasized that the program is voluntary.

McCollum says the program appears to be less generous to Floridians than the BP claims process, but “appearances are deceiving, and that is not the case,” Feinberg said. He encouraged potential claimants to “test” the program and see how they will be treated.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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