High-powered attorneys last week encouraged Island business owners to seek damages for injuries caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil spill.
Just how severe the injuries might be and the compensation Islanders might be owed is an unknown, said Robert J. Gordon of Weitz and Luxenberg in New York City.
The Deepwater disaster can be likened to an auto accident happening in slow motion, Gordon said.
“You’re still … in the middle of the injury,” he told about 30 local business owners and government officials gathered Oct. 5 at Holmes Beach City Hall to discuss compensation from BP.
Holmes Beach Commissioner and Columbia Restaurant manager John Monetti was instrumental in making the meeting happen. Monetti is a board member of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which has hired three firms to help its members and other business owners in the state secure compensation from BP.
In addition to the Holmes Beach forum, the attorneys met with business owners in more than a dozen other locations last week.
Teams of lawyers have been traveling the Gulf of Mexico coast since late April seeking clients damaged by the Deepwater spill that began with the sinking of a deepwater well off the coast of Louisiana April 20. In late May, attorneys met in Cortez with fishers and others who work in the seafood industry to talk about representing them in the claims process.
The lawyers at the city hall forum focused on compensation for both current and future damages caused by the spill — an estimated 400 million gallons of oil spewed from the well before the leak was contained in mid-July.
Their conversation with business owners was timed well. The day before, BP claims czar Kenneth Feinberg issued a statement clarifying that compensation may be available from the BP fund in areas not polluted by Deepwater oil.
Feinberg, appointed by the president to administer the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, is overseeing payments from a $20 billion fund that BP pledged for restoration and compensation.
After hearing from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and other elected officials, the administrator agreed that “there has been economic impact beyond the areas closest to the spill.”
Further, Feinberg said, “after listening to these concerns, I have concluded that a geographic test to determine eligibility regarding economic harm due to the oil spill is unwarranted.”
In the past two months, about $1 billion in claims have been paid to about 50,000 people and businesses, according to the GCCF.
Feinberg said claims are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and that claimants must prove damages resulting from the spill itself and not other causes, such as the ailing economy or the severe cold snap earlier in the year.
The GCCF is currently reviewing emergency claims.
“An emergency claim is really for if you’ve got one foot in bankruptcy court and the other is on a banana peel,” said Gordon, the Weitz and Luxenberg attorney.
Individuals can file emergency claims on their own, said Brian H. Barr of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty and Proctor of Pensacola, which bills itself as the “fourth winningest law firm in the United States.”
The emergency claims are “done on the Web and it’s a fairly simple process,” he said.
However, Barr urged people to consider hiring an attorney for future claims against BP, which he described as a “corporate criminal” that will try to avoid as many payouts as possible.
Additionally, Barr said, it makes sense to work with his firm or Weitz or Cooney and Conway of Chicago because together they are amassing clients to share resources and minimize costs for future claims or, later, litigation under the U.S. Oil Pollution Act and Florida common law.
“There is power in numbers,” Gordon said, though he emphasized the firms are not working on a class-action case.
The attorneys, already representing more than 1,000 clients on BP claims, are working on contingency — they said they don’t require any upfront costs but will earn 15 percent of an emergency claim, 20 percent of a negotiated claim and 25 percent of a court settlement.
Assisting the attorneys are Mark A. Bonn, Julie Harrington and Adam Sacks, who were hired to prepare models that can be used to calculate current and future damages from the spill.
“People have a different perspective of coming to Florida than they did prior to April 20,” Barr said. “Fear, that’s what we’re dealing with.”
The modeling will take into account weather statistics, economic data and tourism trends; examine how other businesses were impacted by other disasters; and apply other factors difficult to quantify, such as how fear about polluted beaches might impact future travel to the Gulf Coast.
“This will give forensic accountants assumptions they can use,” Barr said. “It’s really a neat kind of thing. It’s very expensive to do, but I’ve been very impressed with it.”
Most of the forum attendees represented local restaurants or accommodations businesses, but the audience also included several retailers, Jet-Ski renters, a newspaper owner and a homeowner.
A half dozen of the attendees had already filed claims for BP compensation, but had been waiting weeks or months for a review.
Monetti thanked both the attorneys and the audience for attending the forum.
He said if Island business owners do nothing to seek compensation they’ll get “nothing.”
Preparing to file
For information about filing a direct claim for compensation from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, go to www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com.
A checklist from the law firm Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty and Proctor of Pensacola provides a guide to collecting information needed to complete a claim for fund money or to prepare for future litigation.
The checklist includes: identification details such as Social Security and driver’s license numbers; a business plan or business forecast; management planning documents; a personnel list; business licenses; federal income tax returns from 2007, 2008 and 2009; monthly sales tax returns for the past three years; monthly financial statements for the past three years; yearly profit and loss statements for the past three years; any claim for damages to an insurance company; documents related to loss revenue due to the spill, including cancellation logs, returned deposit receipts and e-mails from customers.