NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday is a major deadline for thousands of people across the Gulf Coast who suffered economic losses due to the BP oil spill.
For 74,000 eligible claimants, it’s the last chance to opt-out of a class-action settlement that was negotiated by BP and plaintiffs lawyers back in the spring and is estimated to run BP about $7.8 billion.
Pat Juneau, the settlement claims administrator appointed by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, said he’s seen about 2,000 opt-outs so far.
Tony Goutierrez, a dock owner in Shell Beach, has already opted out of the settlement.
"If they offer me $25,000 I have to take it,” said Goutierrez, who was offered $25,000 under the old claims process but believes he’s owed about $700,000 based on three years of losses. “At least this way here (by opting out) I don't have to take it. You know, I can at least put up a fight. That's all we doing is fighting down here."
After a slow start, Juneau has paid $256 million on 4,300 claims, a ten-fold increase in the last month alone.
"We doing real good, I think,” Juneau said. “We are ahead of where my forecast had been."
Juneau's average offer is nearly $80,000; almost four times what his predecessor, Ken Feinberg, was paying. And Juneau said his offers are being accepted at a 97 percent rate, which he says is greater proof that the settlement terms are fair.
But there are some who object to the terms of the settlement. They're getting ready to argue in federal court Nov. 8 -- in what's called a fairness hearing -- that the settlement is not at all fair to them.
Chris Battle, a crab fisherman, looks at the amounts being paid to oyster leaseholders and feels that crabbers and fin-fishermen are being shortchanged.
"I'm not asking for $10 million, but I think I deserve... if I generate $400,000 to $500,000 worth of revenue a year, and I think I lost two to three years, I deserve a million dollars, you know what I mean?” Battle said. “I don't deserve $70,000.”
Battle says he still doesn't know whether to opt out or take a settlement payment that he doesn't agree with.
Another problem is that part of his claim has been tied up while the program irons out rules for people like him, who changed boats at some point.
Juneau acknowledged that “there have been some nuances that have developed that were not contemplated" in the original settlement terms. He’s trying to work through those, he said.
Then there are subsistence claimants who live off their own catch. They've waited for years for someone to come up with a way to verify and calculate their claims.
Juneau told WWL-TV a month ago that he'd have that all worked out by Sept. 30. But that didn't happen, and now he wants a little more time to set those rules, even while time is up for the claimants to decide whether they're in or out.
"The reason I didn't go ahead and send those letters out is because I think we're going to make improvements to those claims to make it more germain and relevant to these people, which is to their benefit,” he said.
Barbier did something unique when he let Juneau start paying claims before he actually approved the settlement. But now that means some people have offers before the opt-out deadline and others don't.
In a court conference last week, Barbier said class members "have more information than has ever been available to a potential class" because of the early payment process. He said he already extended the deadline for opting out from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1 and said he wouldn't push it back again.
Then he noted that Alaskan fishermen waited more than 20 years for their payments from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill. And then he added, "that's all I will say about that." Coming from the presiding judge, that's a pretty strong indication that those who opt out could be in for a very long haul.