Fishing firms prepare to file BP claims


With their livelihoods at stake, some South Florida charter boat businesses, fisherman and related businesses are taking action by filing claims or lawsuits against BP for economic damage from the Gulf oil spill.

Others say they won’t file a claim unless the oil makes its way to the southeastern side of the state, and not just the Panhandle.

Tom Greene, owner of Custom Rod & Tackle in Lighthouse Point, says his business has been affected by the oil spill. “We’re seeing the loss of business due to blue marlin fishing tournaments being cancelled in the Gulf,” Greene said.

Greene said it’s costing him “thousands of dollars a month” in lost revenue because customers are not buying tackle, bait, or rods and reels they would have bought if the tournaments had gone as planned. A review of tournaments listed on shows five tournaments canceled in June and two in July.

Greene hasn’t filed a claim with BP, but instead hired a lawyer to represent him because he’s concerned the situation could get worse for his business. “It’s a wait-and-see game,” he says.

Meanwhile, University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said Wednesday that Florida’s economic recovery has been delayed for “at least a year” by the oil spill. Many businesses not on the beach — such as the produce wholesaler who sells to restaurants or the mechanic who fixes refrigerated trucks — will be affected by the disaster, and they likely “won’t ever see a dime from BP,” Snaith said.

At least two law firms are handling claims for business owners in South Florida and the Keys who say they have economic damages. Meanwhile, BP has opened claims offices in Marathon, Key Largo and Key West.

Law firm Grossman Roth in Miami has been retained by the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “The offer I made is let me ensure your claims are handled appropriately….If BP does not pay you and you’re forced to go into litigation, then the firm is prepared to represent you at a reduced cost,” said partner Andy Yaffa.

Lawyer Robert McKee said his firm, Krupnick Campbell Malone in Fort Lauderdale, is representing “hundreds” of tourism and fishing-related businesses in the state that have suffered damages, economic, physical or both, from the oil spill.

“You can’t ascertain what future losses will be if they haven’t stopped the threat of oil or don’t know how they’re going to clean it up,” McKee said.

McKee’s firm is helping clients with their claims against BP, including nine in Broward County and one in Miami-Dade County. Some are being paid monthly by BP, which has 90 days to pay a claim after it is filed.

President Obama appointed lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who led the federal program to handle claims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to do the same with the BP claims. In an e-mail responding to questions, Feinberg says he will release his “Gulf Coast Claims Protocol” by early August.

Economic damage is a valid claim. “If the perception harms a hotel on the beach, even if there’s no damage, that’s compensable,” Feinberg told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, earlier this week.

While actual physical damage is not required, there will be a higher threshold for businesses claiming economic damage, he said.

To prove economic damages, include tax returns, check stubs, or even “a letter from a ship captain” documenting the loss, he says in the e-mail.

Yet several area boat captains say economic damage is difficult to prove when recession is dampening the economy and in a business dependent on weather.

“I cannot say I’ve lost one hour of business to the oil spill,” said Capt. Bouncer Smith, who for 30 years has run a charter boat business out of the Miami Beach Marina. If business is off, he said, it’s because of the economic downturn and a warmer ocean, which means “there’s no mahi-mahi biting.”

Still Smith, who raised a family on his fishing business income, says he has kept careful records and is prepared to document a claim if the oil reaches South Florida or his sales plummet.

The biggest concern for fishermen may be the future, especially if they’ve settled with Feinberg and agreed not to pursue further damages, the lawyers say.

“Lobstering and stonecrabbing, mackerels – the larvae and eggs get processed right through the area where the oil is. We could be talking an industry that’s devastated for eight to 15 years,” Yaffa said.

BP had received 131,000 claims as of Tuesday, according its claims website, Of those, 27 percent have gotten at least one payment. In Florida, there have been 34,414 claims, with BP paying 14,623 claims or a total of $46.8 million. Claims in South Florida total 890 with $253,550 paid so far.

Yaffa said some boat captains or individual fishermen may not file claims, even if their business is hurting, because they have not fully reported their annual income to the IRS. “They could end up owing Uncle Sam,” he said.

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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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