Gulf Oil Spill: Tracking the Claims – System triggers frustration and some praise


You’ve met dozens of oil spill victims through our newspaper since April. Now, many of them have pursued damage claims, first from BP and then through the Ken Feinberg-led Gulf Coast Claims Facility. In this series, they’ll describe their experiences dealing with the claims process and tell of their hopes for the future.

Ralph Atkins, 67, Mobile

Occupation: Owner of Southern Fish & Oyster Co., on the Eslava Street dock in downtown Mobile, selling seafood to individuals, restaurants and other seafood resellers since 1934.

The Press-Register reported Sept. 26 that business had been off as much as 75 percent. Atkins said that seafood consumers, “hammered by negativity” in the media, weren’t coming into his store. Since then, fishermen have returned from their BP jobs to the fishing waters, and Atkins has served on several panels and task forces related to seafood quality and safety.

Outlook: Things are still “way down compared to what they should be doing,” Atkins said. He’d received a few extra orders for oysters, which are a Thanksgiving staple in the South and other parts of the country, but the sales don’t compare to previous years, he said. “The production is there, but people are still concerned. We’re still off a good 50 percent, maybe more. Everything’s tested; the FDA would not have opened up the waters if it wasn’t safe,” he said.

Claims process: Atkins filed a six-month claim and said he received a “small quantity of money the other day, no where near what it should be.” He did express sympathy for the enormity of the task being taken on by Ken Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility. “They are swamped. With every Tom, Dick and Harry filing a claim, it’s tying up the system. I think that’s the problem, as much as anything else. Mr. Feinberg was talking about paying us for six months, then over in Pensacola he started talking about three years, and nothing since then. You hear so many different versions,” he said.

Lori Bosarge, 49, Coden

Occupation: Owner of LaBelle Embroidery, a home-based business she started in 1989 that has local and national clients. Many of her local clients are involved in boatbuilding or the seafood business.

The Press-Register reported on July 12 that Bosarge’s business had been off by 20 percent since the spill, and she didn’t know if it would pick back up. Bosarge reported getting her first check from BP in July, more than two months after filing a claim.

Outlook: Business from customers in Bayou La Batre is still slow, said Bosarge, but work has picked up from her customers outside the south Mobile County area.

Claims process: Bosarge said Ken Feinberg and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility “came through,” sending a check to her and her husband, Dennis, for what they were owed in lost income. “I’m glad it’s over,” she said.

Keith Lee, 48, Foley

Occupation: Owner of Worldwide Interiors in Orange Beach.

The Press-Register reported beginning July 23 that an already lean stretch for south Baldwin County’s furniture sellers worsened with the Gulf oil spill. In June 2006, Lee’s company had sales of $90,000. This June, revenue was about $8,800. BP paid Lee a pair of emergency $5,000 payments.

Outlook: The business remains, but Lee said he continues to be concerned about others in the community who face similar issues. This year, he said, has been destroyed. “The big question is, is 2011 going to be a destroyed year,” Lee said. “How long is it going to be before we have the opportunity to have a viable business again?”

Claims process: “We did get a six-month emergency payment and that’s been helpful,” Lee said. He said, however, that he got conflicting information about his claim. “I got a call Sept. 30 saying that they were going to pay my claim,” Lee said. “I went online that day after the call and it said the claim was denied.” Lee said he continued to check the status of his claim online and each time his claim was denied. He called back several times to double-check what he was originally told, and each time he was told his claim was denied. In the end, a claims representative confirmed that the claim would be paid. Lee said he received a six-month emergency payment for his furniture business about a week later, and a similar payment for another business – this one, scooter rentals – a few days after that. “You get what you get from the process, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason with it,” he said.

Karl and Paul Mueller, 40, 36, Josephine

Occupation: Co-owners of Pirates Cove Marina, a restaurant and docking facility near the end of Baldwin County 95 southeast of Elberta and across Arnica Bay from Orange Beach. It has been a family operation since 1957.

The Press-Register reported on Sept. 26 that business was “slower than it normally is” and that the Muellers had not yet seen any money from the claims process. Further, they were frustrated because it was unclear what exactly was the problem with their claim, the official explanation being a lack of documentation.

Outlook: A review of the books showed a surprise: Business was up in October compared to a year ago, though summer is the time when this business makes most of its money. “We were extremely warm this October, which makes things better for us,” Paul Mueller said. “The next two weekends will be a good indictor,” he added, noting that a songwriting festival on the beach brings out many visitors. “We’re not going to go bankrupt, but we are missing a lot of our bottom line,” he said.

Claims process: “I would say things are worse,” said Paul Mueller, who has been fairly critical of the process throughout. At the first public meetings with claims czar Ken Feinberg, it sounded like claims would go to a month-by-month basis after emergency payments, but now the push is for final claims, he said. He estimated his six-month claim is between $50,000 and $150,000 short. “Right now, based on how it’s affected my business, I’d say our loss for the next three years would approach $900,000 to a million dollars, but we have no information on how it will affect us in the next three years. If we were allowed to make monthly claims and let everybody get through a normal business cycle without the influence of oil and then make a final claim, it would benefit the fund. Right now we have no information about the long-term effect. We can only assume it’s going to be horrible. That’s the problem with the system.”

Billy Parks, 53, lifelong resident of Baldwin County

Occupation: Owner of Billy’s Seafood, which has operated in Bon Secour for 35 years.

The Press-Register reported on Sept. 26 that business was still off 55 to 60 percent. Parks said at the time that BP should be helping the seafood industry spread the word that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico was safe. Parks had received his first claims money but had to resubmit his paperwork through Ken Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

Outlook: Parks said business is still off between 45 and 50 percent. “It’s getting a little bit better, but it’s still pretty far off. Slowly coming back,” he said. Consumer confidence is still the priority, he said, and efforts should be made through marketing and advertising to restore consumer confidence. “We just need more customers,” he said.

Claims process: Billy’s Seafood received a claims check, which has helped, but Parks was unsure how much of his business loss the check was meant to cover. “It seemed to be right on if it’s for three months, but if it’s for six months, it’s way off,” he said. He’s been working with a lawyer throughout the process and continues to consult with him regularly. He said he isn’t sure when his final claim might be filed.

Terrance Roberts, 49, Mobile

Occupation: Owner of T-Rob Seafood since 2007. He holds a second job managing a warehouse.

The Press-Register reported beginning May 13 that Roberts was worried about whether he would be able to maintain his mobile seafood business, which he operated out of a truck, through the summer. He had received two $5,000 checks from BP and was awaiting Ken Feinberg’s takeover of the claims process.

Outlook: Roberts said he may not be able to reopen in 2011, but he remains hopeful about the long-term future. Owning the seafood business was a dream of his, he said, and he doesn’t want to let it fade.

Claims process: He’s still awaiting a payment from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, though he filed a claim Aug. 23. He has been told his claim is in “Phase 4,” the final stage, and that he is “payment eligible.” But day after day, he said, he gets no straight answer about why his claim has yet to be paid. “I really don’t know what to do,” Roberts said. “All I can do is wait. I’m just waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. . . . I try not to get so worked up over it, but it’s so frustrating.” If his claim is denied, Roberts said, he will resort to an alternate method, such as a lawsuit, to get reimbursement. “I don’t look to be denied because I am legit,” he said. “I just want to know what’s taking so long. This is getting ridiculous.”

Dave Sheffield, 60, Fowl River

Occupation: Bait and seafood shop owner for 30 years.

The Press-Register reported beginning June 28 that Dave’s Seafood Bait and Tackle near Fowl River suffered a massive loss of customers after the spill closed fishing areas.

Outlook: Sheffield said last week that his business continues to erode. “It’s really, really bad,” he said. “We’re going from power bill to power bill.” The restaurant that his wife and daughter run, Baudean’s, has encountered similar problems since the oil spill, he said. Although he normally closes during January and February, he said he is considering staying open through the winter to try to scratch out a few dollars since his costs are relatively fixed. The long-term prospects for the business depend on the public’s confidence in Gulf seafood and the media’s portrayal of the situation. “A lot of what you just asked me depends on you guys,” he told a Press-Register reporter.

Claims process: Sheffield said he had no problems with the way BP PLC handled his claims and added that, after a brief delay during the transition, he has no complaints about claims czar Ken Feinberg, either. He said he received his six-month advance payment and awaits a final settlement offer, which he estimated will come in early spring. As the sole employee of his bait shop, Sheffield said, his expenses were relatively low. Therefore, his claims payments have been low. “It’s not a lot of money. But it’s what we were due,” he said. “I don’t have a (gripe) with either one of them.”

Kathleen Walker-Gordon, 53, Bon Secour

Occupation: Unemployed.

The Press-Register reported that Walker-Gordon, who comes from a family of charter fishermen, was unemployed and planned to take a job through a friend to provide housekeeping services for beachfront condos when the oil hit. She filed two claims-one through BP, and one after Kenneth Feinberg took control of the claims process-for what she expected to make providing housekeeping services, about $240 a week, but had yet to get a check.

Outlook: Walker-Gordon said that she remains unemployed. “I am finding more opportunities to apply for, and I’m putting myself out there,” she said. She said that she is searching for another housekeeping job.

Claims process: Walker-Gordon said she received a check the first week of October for the amount she requested. “They reimbursed me for what I would have made had I been able to work,” Walker-Gordon said. “I was paid penny for penny. I have to say, those people were very, very nice.”

Jimmy Waller, 41, Elberta

Occupation: Having worked in the charter fishing business since he was 15, Waller now owns his own charter fishing boat, the “Big Adventure,” based in Orange Beach.

The Press-Register joined Waller on his 65-foot fishing boat on June 7, his second day working as part of a BP program that hired boat owners to work in spill recovery. Waller was worried about how he’d keep his business running. He still owes more than $300,000 on his boat, and has a family, including a 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy, to support. This summer, he said he hadn’t had any problems filing his claims with BP. He was getting a monthly check that was enough to pay the boat note and to cover insurance and his slip fee.

Outlook: Waller said it may be several years before the charter fishing business gets back to what it had been before the spill. “I’ve already had people calling about next year, wondering if the fish are going to be safe to eat. I don’t know,” Waller said. “I can already see a lot of people not going fishing over the next year or two years until someone has a 100 percent concrete answer that the fish are safe to eat. And I don’t blame them.”

Claims process: Waller filed two claims under Ken Feinberg’s process, a personal claim as an employee of his business and a business claim as the owner. He has received six months’ worth of his salary – he declined to give a figure – through the personal claim. And he has received a larger business claim to cover his expenses. He said he received one check and thought it was too small. A few weeks later, he received a letter saying the claims office had made a mistake, and he got two more checks. He would not disclose the amount, but he said he thinks it might be enough to make up for his business losses. “You really don’t know what kind of year you were going to have,” Waller said. “Turns out, we would’ve had a good year. We had good weather, no hurricanes. The economy would’ve been better. They used the last two years of taxes to come up with a figure.” Now, he said, he’s hoping he’ll get another salary check when the first one runs out. “For a lot of people, it’s been very frustrating,” Waller said. “I’ve been lucky. I know a lot of people who are still behind, some people who have claims just as legitimate as mine. That’s why I’m not going to raise a stink. I’ve received everything I think I should receive in a timely fashion.”

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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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