BP Pays Out Claims, but Satisfaction Is Not Included



GRAND ISLE, La. – Brian Zito’s 30-foot shrimp boat is called the Lucky 13, but with the BP oil spill keeping it in port here, he is thinking of renaming it the Unlucky 13.

Mr. Zito is one of thousands on the Gulf Coast in the uncomfortable position of relying on BP, the company that cost them their livelihoods, for money to live on.

He got a $5,000 check from BP last month, the standard amount for boat owners.

“Oh, I got the money, but it’s a joke,” said Mr. Zito, 54, who borrowed thousands of dollars to fix up his boat in time for the season, and who pointed to a wrinkled piece of paper in his truck showing that he was recently paid $1,823 for just one day of shrimping. “This year, I could have made $5,000 in two nights.”

As the oil spreads outward from the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico, so does the economic hardship. It is now affecting everyone from fishermen and seafood processors to the owners of vacation rentals who cannot attract guests to oil-marred beaches. In response, BP has opened 25 claims offices across the gulf and sent $46 million in checks so far to some 17,500 Gulf Coast residents for their lost income.

But some boat owners, like Mr. Zito, complain that BP is not paying enough. Others say they have had a hard time getting their claims paid. BP said another 17,500 claims — about half of all submitted — had yet to be paid because of questions about documentation, which can be hard to come by in a cash industry like fishing.

When President Obama visited here on Friday, he said he did not want to hear that BP was “nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the gulf who are having a hard time,” while spending billions of dollars on dividends and millions of dollars on advertising.

Darryl Willis, a vice president of BP America who is in charge of the claims process, said the company would honor all legitimate claims. “We will make these payments for as long as it takes,” he said in a conference call with reporters on Saturday.

Mr. Willis said that BP had initially decided to pay all captains $5,000 a month and all deckhands $2,500 to get the process moving, but that they would readjust and pay more to people who could show that they were losing more because of the spill. And he said claims adjusters were trying to work with people who lacked documentation, by accepting pay stubs or bank statements from some claimants who lacked tax forms.

But some people are still struggling to get their claims paid. As she left First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Empire, Darvin Riley, 38, said she was having trouble getting her $2,500 check for the work she had missed as a deckhand on her brother’s shrimp boat, the Captain Kaden, because some of his paperwork was out of date. “We’re not going out, and we’re not making any money,” she said.

But for the most part, said Clint Guidry, the acting president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, the problem is not that BP is not paying claims, but that the claims it is paying are too small. “It’s kind of like having a really good job and then getting injured,” he said. “You get worker’s comp. But try paying your bills with that.”

Some lawyers see another possible problem with the claims process: it may delay lawsuits. Stuart Smith, an environmental lawyer in New Orleans, said that by paying the claims, BP may be able to forestall some lawsuits, which can be filed only if claims against the company have not been resolved within 90 days. “So you set up this massive claims process that is directed and controlled by the corporate polluter,” Mr. Smith said. “You have to talk to BP before you go to court. It’s outrageous.”

The anger at BP is evident here, with signs stapled to telephone polls and houses with messages like “President Obama, BP took my money. Where’s my change?” and “BP = Bayou Polluters” and “Where the hell is my money, BP?”

At Camardelle’s Live Bait on Highway 1, Chris Camardelle, 50, was still riding high from Mr. Obama’s visit to his shop on Friday. But he was troubled that the checks he had received from BP so far would not be nearly enough to offset the income he was hoping to earn this spring and summer in what he called his “haymaking days.”

“Remember, we’ve got to make enough money to save for the whole winter,” he said. “And we’ve just been making all these repairs to our boats, getting ready for the shrimp season. My bank loans are $5,000 a month for just this live bait shop. Right now, I’m barely floating.”

Michael Cooper reported from Empire, La., and Robbie Brown from Grand Isle, La. John Schwartz contributed reporting from New Orleans.

From http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/us/07claims.html?ref=us

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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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