Doing Spill Victims a Disservice


Another sign of increasing heat on the BP claims process is going viral this week. John Schwartz at the New York Times is reporting that lawyers suing BP are asking a federal judge to order Kenneth Feinberg to be more “even-handed” when he talks to people about whether or not to sue BP and others involved in the disaster.

The article makes a point we’ve made here repeatedly, reports Schwartz: “… asking Judge Carl J. Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana, who oversees the consolidated federal lawsuits concerning the spill, the plaintiff’s lawyers argued that Mr. Feinberg should be telling potential litigants that, if they go to court, they might be able to win punitive damages, lawyer fees and the opportunity to sue others involved in the spill.”

This comes amid mounting pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to move faster on claims and to include more transparency, something Mr. Feinberg has promised to do more than once. Of course, he also promised – to Congress, no less, months ago – to disclose his salary but has yet to do so.

It’s widely noted that Feinberg’s firm is getting $850,000 per month from BP to administer the claims process, and the plaintiff’s lawyers are asking Judge Barbier to direct that fact to be disclosed to anyone considering accepting a final claims payment and signing away their legal rights.

And all this comes as other stories circulate that lawyers are asking for 33 percent of claims to represent clients. That’s just not the case – my firm asks for 10 percent for representation in those claims. Any higher number likely comes from a percentage of fees and expenses from a prolonged legal battle – not from claims representation.

All this confusion, of course, speaks to the widespread and growing perception that Mr. Feinberg is not really an independent broker looking out for the best interests of Gulf residents. Instead, he’s increasingly seen as BP’s man with the checkbook, looking to settle claims and prevent lawsuits against the oil giant. Eventually, this becomes a real political problem for the Obama Administration, still reeling from that NOAA-fueled “Mission Accomplished” moment when they announced the “vast majority” of oil was gone.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and as with the early days of the spill when the courts stepped in to prevent BP from taking advantage of cleanup workers, it might take the courts to restore a sense of fairness to the current claims process.

Read the NYT piece here:

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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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