NEW ORLEANS (CN) – BP’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility, overseen by Kenneth Feinberg to distribute money from $20 billion put aside to pay claims, will close several of its offices today (Wednesday), including its “ground zero” office in Grand Isle, La. The closures come a week after BP told a federal judge that thousands of lawsuits seeking damages should be thrown out because the plaintiffs had not filed claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
Grand Isle is known as ground zero because it is just 50 miles from BP’s doomed Macondo well, which spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last year, coating Grand Isle’s sandy beaches in crude. Other Louisiana offices to close are in Lafitte and in Morgan City.
Eight of the GFFC’s 35 sites will close, including one in Alabama and four in Florida.
As of May 19, a total of 512,000 claims had been made through the GCCF, and $4 billion had been paid through the fund.
In Louisiana, 200,000 claimants have filed claims, and received $1.3 billion. The largest yet in Louisiana has been a $44 million settlement to the giant fish oil and fish meal products company, Omega Protein.
That award, in April, caused anger among small commercial fishing businesses that said they hadn’t seen a dime.
Attorneys have encouraged those who have been economically hurt by the spill to join the massive consolidated litigation.
But last week, attorneys for BP told the federal judge overseeing the consolidated litigation that thousands of litigants had filed lawsuits pre-emptively, in violation of the Oil Pollution Act.
BP attorney Andrew Langan told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier that thousands of oil spill plaintiffs improperly joined the litigation because they had not first filed claims through the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, or GCCF.
“BP’s position is that any people who have claims should decide this out of court” by filing with the GCCF, Langan said.
Langan said the Oil Pollution Act was set up to help claimants settle out of court. He said one stipulation for filing an economic damages lawsuit against BP is that a claimant must have filed a claim with the GCCF and have been denied.
Langan acknowledged that filing through the GCCF “is a huge inconvenience for the plaintiffs.”
Gulf Coast lawmakers have expressed frustration with the claims center, saying BP and Feinberg were intentionally stalling responses to lure desperate claimants into accepting onetime quick payments, of $25,000 for businesses or $5,000 for individuals.
The payments require a signed waiver stating the claimant won’t litigate for more damages from BP or any of the other oil spill defendants.
Officials from the GCCF told lawmakers that despite the office closures, oil spill related claims will be accepted until Aug. 13.