Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, BP had set up the Gulf Coast Claims Facility to manage claims.
On June 4, that facility was closed and BP no longer will handle claims. Claims have been replaced by a court-supervised Economic and Property Damages Settlement process.
"The previous claims process worked for some people," said attorney and Sanibel resident Aaron Pruss of Becker & Poliakoff. "Although in this region many claims were rejected because we weren't at ground zero of the oil spill."
Even though scientific computer modeling predicted gulf currents would bring the slick toward Florida and beyond, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi were in the thick of the spill at the time. Large plaintiff law firms converged on the panhandle region and signed up clients to file a class action lawsuit in Louisiana.
"People were making claims, but there were no guidelines," said Sanibel CPA Michael Miller. "Internally, BP was changing people around. Claims started to dry up. People were wondering what was going on because they weren't getting paid."
Prior to the class action trial, BP and the law firms negotiated a settlement that gave guidance and definition on how to settle claims. Now that BP is no longer handling claims, businesses and individuals who suffered economic damages in Southwest Florida can make claims.
Anyone with a claim has until April 2014 to file, but Miller suggested filing now.
"On these two islands we have an opportunity, especially for people who lost interest, to go back and get compensation," Miller said. "People forgot about it. This settlement brings it to the forefront."
The courts split the gulf geography into zones and established payouts based on zone classifications. Most of Florida is Zone C. However, since Sanibel and Captiva are barrier islands they have been classified as Zone A, which means "most impacted" by the disaster.
"If you are a particular category of claimant located in Zone A, they are going to presume causation of your damages," explained Pruss. "You don't have to prove the oil spill caused your decrease in revenue or that it caused your business to fail."
In other economic loss zones proof of why and how the spill affected a business or individual must be presented.
"For residents and businesses in Zone A, like Sanibel and Captiva, a level of bureaucracy should be taken out of the process," said Pruss.
The settlement includes a "risk transfer premium" for those who agree not to sue BP in the future. In Zone A most payments are two-and-a-half times the claim. For example, if a claim is $10,000 and an agreement is signed, a risk transfer premium of $25,000 will be received, for a total of $35,000. However, these payments are subject to tax and must be claimed as income.
"That's BP saying 'yes, we are admitting as part of this settlement that we caused the economic losses for people and businesses on Sanibel,'" said Miller, who sees these settlements as an opportunity for people to invest the money back into their businesses.
If you filed a claim with BP and never heard back, you are not precluded from filing again. Neither is someone whose business went bankrupt or who can show decreased revenue for some period after April 2010.
"Be realistic about your losses," Miller advises. "And understand your claim has to be supported by documentation."
Information and applications can be found at www.deepwaterhorizonsettlements.com.
An attorney can help with all required documentation, finding the perfect fit for a claimant category or anyone who has had previous claims rejected. For any questions about BP claims, contact Becker & Poliakoff at 433-7707 or Miller's office at 472-1323.
"Mike and I share the same philosophy of service of our island residents and businesses is of paramount importance and above any business interests we might have," said Pruss. "We're here to make sure our residents and businesses are taken care of and point people in the right direction. If they need assistance from professionals, we are here to help."