How BP Treats the “Small People”


In a fascinating, if sometimes gut-wrenching, series following more than a dozen local businesses hit by the oil spill, the Press-Register in Alabama offers an ongoing look into how British Petroleum is actually performing away from the media spotlight. The only real consistencies are that the oil giant is slow to pay (when it does pay) and is constantly asking for more documentation and shuffling claims “adjusters” (many people report being handed off a half-dozen times already).

And, oh yes, it really, really helps to get your “non-payment story” in a major regional newspaper. A suspicious number of claimants got some money immediately after their stories appeared in the Press-Register. Interesting, don’t you think?

Another trend is that those who British Petroleum knows can fight back, the ones going in with a CPA and/or lawyer, tend to get through the process – and that makes some sense, because the bigger companies are likely to have more documentation, but I suspect it’s also a strategy. They know those people won’t get frustrated and go away.

That contrasts with what the arrogant British Petroleum chairman called the “small people.” A housekeeper reports that not only did British Petroleum not pay her, but even suggested she move to find work.

Says one resident who owns a company that flies advertising banners behind airplanes: “We’ve been through six different claims people and it’s an absolute mess. It’s dysfunctional and, logistically, they have not had a good job with it. We’ve been through so many claims officers. Whatever the reason for the turnover, they need to get a handle on it … business is off 75 percent from what we were doing. The claims people talk nice, they’re friendly, but it takes too long to get anything done. To give you a number, I’ve lost half of my net worth in my checking account since April 20. And they told me (last week) that they needed more documentation, when they’ve already got everything from my tonsils to my shoe size.”

The series also reminds us that the spill reached into all areas of the economy, not just the charter boats and seafood business, but also into a baker’s cheesecake business. Family businesses are having to lay off family members, people are losing homes and closing shops.

(A Footnote: I use the word “adjusters” in quotations for a reason. That’s what British Petroleum calls its claims process employees, but they’re not adjusters in the way that insurance companies use adjusters. The insurance company has a fiduciary responsibility, and their adjusters can get in trouble if they don’t represent your side of the situation. In the British Petroleum process, they are simply employees of the oil company and may be nice folks, but they are not required to look out for anyone other than their employer.)

The Press-Register story is 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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