Plaintiff Steering Committee travels Gulf region to explain BP settlement

Lawyers and CPAs representing thousands of Gulf Coast residents and businesses claiming damages from the 2010 Gulf oil spill gathered this week at the Westin Galleria in Houston to hear details of a proposed settlement with BP.

The presentation by members of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee was one stop on a weeklong road show around the Gulf Coast to further explain a settlement between plaintiffs and BP to settle economic and medical damages from for the April 20, 2010 spill, which resulted in the release of millions of barrels of oil and killed 11 workers.

At the presentation, steering committee lawyers explained eligibility requirements and rules for making claims in a proposed class-action settlement, which BP has valued at about $7.8 billion, although there is no cap on claims the British oil company may face.

The settlement is not final.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans, who is overseeing the tangle of litigation over the blowout of BP’s Macondo well, has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 8 to determine whether the proposal sufficiently addresses the damages suffered by various claimants.

The steering committee has said, however, that payments to plaintiffs could start as early as July, and lawyers at the presentation said that getting plaintiffs to participate will be important to demonstrate to Barbier that the settlement is working.

“In order for the plaintiffs to have credibility on that November date, the PSC needs to be able to tell Barbier, ‘We’ve got 20,000 claims and have releases on 10,000 of them – look how good we are doing – this settlement works,” said Chris Dean, a Houston-based lawyer representing several plaintiffs in spill claims. “They need a successful track record before the Nov. 8 date, in order to have credibility that this settlement proposal is the right way to solve a huge and complex problem.”

The steering committee is holding similar information sessions in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.  Committee members said at the meeting that the presentations are meant to educate plaintiff representatives on how the settlement will work.

Because the settlement has been structured as a class action settlement, plaintiffs can opt out, but must do so by Oct. 1 – after which they will be considered to be part of the class action, forfeiting the right to go to court independently.  If a significant number of plaintiffs opt out, BP could  terminate the agreement.

The proposed settlements cover  economic and property damages, as well as ongoing  medical care and observation for workers who helped in clean-up efforts.

The settlement includes varying levels of payments for those who suffered economic damage, the steering committee told participants at the Houston meeting Wednesday.

For example, all oil and gas related businesses can’t receive settlement funds, but banks and real estate developers can make claims involving coastal and wetland real property. They are prohibited from receiving business economic loss claims, however.

Some lawyers at the session expressed some skepticism that claims payments could being as soon as the steering committee said, given the complexity of the proposal and unanswered questions on how it would be applied.

“My biggest concern is that they are saying that the court supervised settlement program is going to be able to pay a substantial amount of money this year,” said Dean. “I have read this thing up and down and sideways several times and am still scratching my head on how it will be implemented.  Are they really going to be able to take a claim that is filed before July 4 and get it paid in 2012, with all these complexities? I hope so, but I have some reservations.”