Opting out has its risks in BP case

With the statute of limitations running out for some 25,000 Gulf Coast residents with potential spill claims against BP, it is still not clear how many of them will be allowed to opt out of an already negotiated settlement.

Joe Rice, a plaintiff attorney who helped negotiate the $7.8 billion settlement with the oil giant related to the 2010 spill, warned Monday that attorneys for those seeking to opt out in hope of possibly striking a separate deal risk getting nothing for their clients.

“I imagine that a lawyer thinks that if he opts out, he will file an appeal and come up with some way to resolve those claims with BP outside the class in some aggregate fashion,” Rice told the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t think BP has any intention of doing that at the current time.”

With the three-year statute of limitations running out in April, claimants who opt not to be part of the settlement must file their claims by Jan. 24 so that BP will have the legally required 90 days to respond.

“If you don’t make a presentment by Jan. 24, you start facing a risk that the statute of limitations could run before you have a chance to legally pursue your claim,” Rice said.

He also estimated that U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the mass litigation, may approve only about a quarter of the 25,000 people currently listed as opt-outs. The majority of the paperwork, Rice said, did not have the addresses and individual signatures required by the judicial proceeding.

“These lawyers had names of folks that they talked to sometime in the process, and they didn’t even have a valid address for them, so they put them on the form without them,” said Rice, who is also part of a court-appointed steering committee representing the 79,000 plaintiffs already party to the deal.

In a hearing last week in New Orleans, claims administrator Patrick Juneau estimated that about half of the 25,000 opt-out claims would meet the court requirements.

Barbier has not given a time frame for deciding who to let out of the settlement.

Attorney Brent Coon, who filed more than 10,000 opt-out claims, said the judge will first have to decide which clients “jumped through all the hoops” and which ones did not.

“If he doesn’t extend opt-out criteria, I’m appealing 5,000 cases on the difficulties of how you get out of this case,” Coon said.

BP attorney Rick Godfrey said at the hearing that the company would press any claimant who opts to go to trial for specific evidence of any economic losses stemming from the oil spill.

By contrast, the settlement assumes the losses were caused by the spill.

“For those who opt out,” Godfrey said, “we will put them to the proof.”

Eligible Gulf Coast residents who want to participate in the current settlement are being given an extra year to file a claim.

Rice also said the list of participants could grow dramatically as more businesses indirectly connected to the tourism industry realize they are eligible to file.

“It is just up to people to exercise that right,” Rice said. “BP will pay it if they come. We have built a claimant-friendly, transparent, open-ended claims process for the people on the Gulf Coast. All we need now is for them to come forward and get their claim.”

emily.pickrell@chron.com