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Gulf oil spill: New agency to take over claims payments on Monday

August 20, 2010 | 11:08 am

Documents released Friday about how claims will be paid from BP's $20-billion fund to deal with the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oll spill show that how close a person or business is to the spill will play a key role.

The claims process is shifting from BP to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility effective Monday. It will be run by Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who also handled claims from the 9/11 terror attacks.

The new rules govern emergency claims that can be made between Monday and Nov. 23. Claimants will not give up their right to sue BP and other spill-related companies in return for the emergency money, but final settlements coming later this year are to include a waiver of the right to sue.

The documents say claimants must show how the spill caused damage or economic loss, including their geographic proximity to the disaster and “dependence upon injured natural resources.” That could leave out many people and businesses -- such as a real estate agent who lost sales, or a restaurant supply company miles from the gulf whose customers stopped buying.

The losers could, however, still file a lawsuit seeking damages or become part of an existing class-action case.

Some attorneys representing fishermen, property owners, hotel operators and others say the lawsuit waiver to be included in the final claims phase will force many people to make a difficult choice: take a potentially lesser claim now or wait for a possibly larger payout later through court action. It could also protect BP from huge damage awards in some cases.

"They realize that small payments will be grabbed by some, and then in the future they will have no access to justice. Which is sad but true," said Jere Beasley, a plaintiffs attorney in Montgomery, Ala.

More than 300 lawsuits have been filed against BP and the other companies involved in the April 20 blowout aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that triggered the massive oil spill. BP said earlier this week it has already paid more than $368 million in claims.

-- Associated Press