Gulf doctor: BP settlement won’t help my sick patients


Dr. Michael Robichaux is frustrated. Since the earliest days of the Deepwater Horizon spill, Dr. Robichaux — based in Mathews, La. — has done little else besides treating fishermen, cleanup workers and coastal residents who’ve been make sick by their exposure to the oil or the toxic dispersant that was sprayed in the Gulf. In recently months, Robichaux has looked closely as the $7.8 billion settlement that’s on the table between BP and local residents and small businesses, and he believes the deal is grossly unfair to thousands suffering chronic health problems.

Before the hearing that was held before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier this fall, Dr. Robichaux filed a letter of objection to the pending settlement. His primary objections to the medical provisions of the deal are two-fold: It favors workers and others who suffered acute, short-term exposure to the spill while failing to properly acknowledge the chronic, long-term illnesses that many now face in coastal communities. What’s more, the low financial ceilings on the payments to claimants in the case won’t be nearly enough to cover medical bills that some will be facing for the rest of their lives.

Late last month, Dr. Robichaux sent a second letter to Judge Barbier that re-states his objections, adding his frustration with what he believes are misrepresentations made to the court about the medical issues for those exposed to toxic pollution in the wake of the 2010 catastrophe. He spells out — in very specific terms — the severe conditions such as frequent headaches, severe stomach pain or fatigue that his patients are coping with, and he voices his worry that the settlement terms will obscure the true nature of the health crisis in the Gulf for good.

“It appears that the interests of a large, foreign corporation has superceded the needs of thousands of Americans who reside along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico,” Dr. Robichaux told Judge Barbier. “Equally as important to me, as a physician, is the fact that this settlement will result in a permanent record that completely ignores the truly significant illnesses that have resulted from this tragic event.”

Dr. Robichaux wrote that he’s treated 113 patients who were exposed to toxic pollution from the BP oil spill, and about 100 of them have had severe chronic health effects, to the point that many of them are unable to work because of constant headaches or fatigue and are unable to work, relying instead on Social Security, Medicaid or other social programs.

Of the 113 patients that he’s treated, Dr. Robichaux said that the most common symptoms are headaches (93), memory loss (89), fatigue (85), irritability (63), vertigo (60), nausea (49) and blurred vision (43), with others suffering from insomnia, persistent cough, or rashes. Of the 20 who experienced some sort of stomach pain, many reported it was severe. He writes:

While many of the people we treated at our facility experienced amazing improvements in their symptoms, we were to later to realize that they often became ill once again when they returned to their home environments.

Ordinary household chemicals, petroleum products, perfumes, deodorants, etc. often become extremely noxious to patients who have had toxic exposures and prevent them from leading normal lives.

Two of my fishermen patients, a husband and wife team, had extraordinary results from their detox treatment.  When they returned home to resume fishing, the wife became extremely ill as soon as she began working on their boat.  Her husband resumed working and he too developed problems and has been unable to work since that time. 

As a layperson discussing what is largely a legal issue, I am certainly at a disadvantage in making a case for my patients.  However, I do not see any other health professionals rushing to the aid of these victims, and I feel obligated to do the best that I can to assist them with their dilemma.  The irony of this situation is that while I am a physician traversing the legal universe, the attorneys in this situation have decided to play doctor and to make decisions based on symptoms that are significantly less common and less serious than those that actually exist.

In the letter, Dr. Robichaux said he was frustrated with the medical testimony that he heard in court on behalf of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee. He said that the physician advising lawyers from the PSC seemed to get their information largely over the telephone from other doctors — but it bore little resemblance to the actual patients he’s treated along the Gulf.

The result, he argues, is a settlement that not only is unfair to those seeking medical compensation but in fact creates a false record of what should be widely acknowledged as a public health crisis in the Gulf. This, he correctly notes, is a grave injustice. For those who do qualify as medical claimants, he adds, the proposed compensation is not adequate:

This creates a dilemma for these clients.  The maximum compensation available to them will probably be in the $60,000 range.  However, that remains to be seen, as many of these individuals who are severely affected by this dilemma do not have the far less significant symptoms that qualify for compensation. 

Another dilemma is the fact that many of these patients will be affected by their disease for the rest of their lives.  How can $60,000 come even close to compensating these people for an illness that has completely disrupted their lives and will affect them for as long as they live?

My friend and legal colleague Robert McKee made similar arguments to the court objecting to the proposed medical compensation. McKee pointed out, for example. that a worker who bagged oil-soaked items may have passed out on the job and thus qualifies for a settlement, while a boom operator who suffered chronic exposure and didn’t report anything at the time — but now experiences significant symptoms, would not be covered. 

Dr. Robichaux and I agree on one fundamental point: It is far more important to do this BP settlement right, and to do it fairly, than it is to do quickly. For far too many people suffering from serious, chronic illnesses, they have all the time in the world.

To read the full text of Dr. Robichaux’s letter to the court, please go to:

Here is my Nov. 12 blog post about my verbal objections to the $7.8 billion BP settlement:

To read my Sept. 12 post recording our written objections to the $7.8 billion settlement, please read:

To read the earlier declaration to the court by Dr. Robichaux, please read and also

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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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