Billions of dollars have been set aside by oil giant BP Oil to compensate businesses damaged by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. You don’t have to be in the seafood business or even a business on the Coast to qualify. Businesses throughout the state that show a pattern of less revenue during the period when the BP oil spill was washing ashore could be eligible for settlements through a federal court claims settlement process.
Robert Wiygul, Waltzer & Wiygul Law Firm, which has offices in New Orleans and Harvey, La., and Biloxi, said businesses in Mississippi need to check out to see if they fit in the settlement classes.
“People all the way up to the northern part of the state have the ability to submit a claim in this thing,” Wiygul said. “If they fit the revenue patterns and formulas in the settlement, they should submit a claim and see what they can get. People in the entire state of Mississippi are eligible to file a claim in the settlement that has been proposed.”
To be eligible, businesses in the state have to show a particular pattern of a decline in revenues during the oil spill and then a recovery after that.
“There are going to be a surprising number of businesses that do show that pattern,” Wiygul said. “While there are certainly a lot of microeconomic trends that could play into this, the way the settlement works is if you show the pattern, it is assumed to have been caused by the oil spill. If you meet the pattern that this settlement wants, then you are going to get paid.”
Wiygul said a lot of people opted out of the settlement agreement. There were individuals whose losses were clearly caused by the oil spill, but who did not fit well within the framework of this settlement. Those are the people who needed to opt out.
“My law firm and the folks we represent have some serious concerns about different aspects of the seafood settlement program,” Wiygul said. “For some fishermen, this was a darn good settlement, but we felt the protection offered was not sufficient protection for some fishermen. They were giving up the right to sue for future impact, which can happen. We filed an objection asking the judge in New Orleans to reform this agreement which my partner, Bill Waltzer, articulated concerns about to the federal judge in New Orleans recently.”
Some people have been reluctant to take settlements now because future impacts to the fishery may be higher than today. Ocean Springs attorney Steve Mullins, Luckey & Mullins Law firm, said it took years before the fisheries collapsed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Mullins, a former president of the Coast Conservation Association who represents a lot of Vietnamese fishermen, said it could take five to 10 years to figure out the impact to seafood industry.
“That is why BP wants to get this done,” Mullin said. “There are a lot of tar mats out there, a lot of oil and a lot of dead zones. Some fishermen say everything is fine, but other people say they are seeing real changes that concern them. I don’t know when the oyster fishery will be re-established. What I tell clients in the seafood-processing business is they are getting a risk transfer premium. BP is transferring risk of this thing collapsing to you. If things are good, you win; if it collapses in two years, you lose. There are no models to predict an environmental disaster of that magnitude. On the Coast, we are all Guinea pigs.”
Two and a half years after the BP oil spill, the consequences are still being seen. Mullins said the environment continues to suffer. Just recently, reports have come out that fish have serious illnesses, dolphins are still dying, fewer crabs and lobsters can be found and deep-sea coral communities are dying.
“How this news will affect fishers, restaurants and businesses that cater to tourists remains to be seen,” Mullins said. “One thing is certain. We continue to suffer the economic fallout of this disaster, as businesses and individuals experience ongoing losses.”
It is not too late to file. Attorneys are putting in more business claims every week.
“A lot of businesses that are eligible haven’t filed yet,” he said. “If it were me, I would go ahead and get it done before the end of the year. People in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama aren’t making enough claims.”
Mullins said the settlement claims process has been slow and difficult, and people have been frustrated by how long it takes to get paid. Settlements are just starting to be paid. But businesses that meet certain financial criteria should take advantage of the opportunity to be compensated. Mullins said sometimes they submit 50 businesses per week, and 30 qualify for the settlement.
Since the formula can be complex, it can be helpful to have an attorney. While attorneys charge 15 to 25 percent, the advantage is they are familiar with the 1,100-page agreement.
“It is good to have someone with some understanding of the claims process,” Mullins said. “We have four or five phone numbers of people we can talk to in the process and find out what the problems are. It has been slow going and frustrating for everyone.”
Mullins said the biggest misconception is that businesses must be related to tourism or seafood to receive the settlement. That is not true. Your business must have financial numbers that fit in the formula showing declines from earlier revenues following the oil spill. Another misconception is that only Coast businesses can get the settlement.
“A business in Gulfport has only a slight advantage over a business in Hattiesburg, Oxford or Clarksdale,” Mullins said. “I have seen people on the water denied and have as many clients in Delta and Oxford as the Mississippi Gulf Coast who have been approved.”