Easier oil claims process promised


PANAMA CITY — If you don’t like the way BP handled your oil spill claim, you’ll have another shot at reimbursement in less than two weeks.

White House and BP officials tapped Kenneth Feinberg, who handled Virginia Tech, 9/11 and Agent Orange claims, to head an autonomous agency that will take over oil spill claims. Feinberg will assume his role as independent administrator of the Deepwater Horizon Victims Compensation Fund on Aug. 23.

“I am not beholden to the government; I am not beholden to BP,” Feinberg assured a crowd of more than 200 businessmen and women, politicians and fishermen who gathered at Florida State University-Panama City on Tuesday. “There is no more BP claims process.”

The new program “will be more generous and will declare more people eligible” than BP’s process, he added, and will use different criteria to determine eligibility.

“We won’t use the BP approval process,” he said. “There are too many claims sitting there unpaid.”

People who have been denied reimbursement by BP — including real estate agents, nonprofits and business owners who argued they lost money not because of oil, but because of the perception of oil — will be eligible under the new plan, Feinberg said.

“You do not need to have oil on your beach in order to be able to file a claim,” he said. “I must say I am at a loss to understand what (BP’s) complication is.”

He also expects people to receive their payments much more quickly under the new program. All claims should be processed, and checks distributed, within one to seven days of applying, he said.

Who’s eligible?

Eligibility will be based on three things.

“How close are you to the beach?” Feinberg said. “What industry are you involved in? We’ll pay fish processors even if they aren’t on the beach. And how dependent are you on the natural resources that are out there?”

Existing BP claims offices will serve, at least temporarily, as homes for the new program, which will be in place for three years. Applicants also will be able to fill out the form online.

Those who already have started a claim with BP won’t be required to submit income documentation again, Feinberg said, but will need to fill out a new application. Those who have received a partial payment from BP will be eligible to receive the remainder through Feinberg’s plan.

Both established and new businesses will be covered under the plan, Feinberg said.

Existing businesses can demonstrate loss with income statements from the last two or three years. New businesses can be reimbursed for costs associated with opening and for losses in anticipated income, as long as own-ers have something to back up their estimates.

Feinberg said he would require “minimal documentation” for anyone who applies for an “emergency payment” designed to cover six months’ worth of lost income.

“Everybody, I think, should take advantage of the six-month emergency fund,” he said. “For the emergency payments, I will bend over backwards.”

There are no strings attached to the emergency fund, he added, but anyone who accepts a lump-sum settlement awarded for anticipated long-term loss will waive his or her right to later sue BP.

Laura Mann, who works in a Panama City attorney’s office, said clients have voiced frustration with the BP claims process and that she liked Feinberg’s proposal.

“I hope that he sticks by what he says and that it’s not just double talk,” Mann said. “If it works, it’s great.”

Jamie and Susan Long, owners of Panama City Weddings, plan to file a claim with the office as soon as it opens. BP’s claim process has been convoluted and complicated, the couple said.

“As far as the process as it’s been with BP, it’s basically been like the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ ” Jamie Long said. “They want the witch’s broom. Then you come back; now they want the flying monkey.”

The couple received one payment of $5,000 from BP for May, Jamie Long said, but the oil company later told him he wasn’t entitled to that money because there was no oil in Panama City until June.

BP will take that $5,000 out of Long’s June reimbursement, he said.

He’s optimistic about Feinberg’s plan but said, “Really, at this point in time, it’s a wait and see.”

The program is not open to local governments, but, Sen. Bill Nelson said, he plans to push the matter.

“We had people from all across the gulf that came here today,” Nelson said, “because of an uncertain claims process with BP. One thing we still have to address is the local government and state government claims.”

The trust fund holds $20 billion but, Feinberg said, “if $20 billion is insufficient, BP has said it will cover all eligible claims.”

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

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