Originally posted by Emily Pickrell - Houston Chronicle - August 20, 2012
Danny Hatcher had more questions than answers after he got a letter explaining proposed compensation for persistent respiratory problems and fatigue he attributes to working on a cleanup crew after the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
“I got something in the mail about some kind of medical program,” said Hatcher, 56, a former oil rig deckhand who spent several months cleaning up beach debris and vacuum-ing oil from water in Venice and Grand Isle, La.
The letter described a settlement between BP, the oil company whose blown-out Macondo well triggered the spill, and a committee of lawyers representing individuals and businesses with claims arising from the disaster.
He is one of thousands of individuals who are struggling to understand and make decisions about the medical settlement between BP and the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, which would replace an earlier compensation system called the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
He has to decide whether to participate in the settlement, which has yet to be approved by a federal judge overseeing spill-related litigation, or opt out and take his chances with an individual lawsuit. Hatcher’s uncertainty over what the settlement offers, and confusion among other potential claimants, is a challenge for the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, which is attempting to reach hundreds of thousands of potentially eligible individuals along the Gulf Coast.
Workers who live close to the coast or worked as cleanup workers there received letters from a claims administrator containing the basics of the medical benefits they could receive through the settlement BP and the steering committee reached in March.
BP has estimated its will pay $7.8 billion, although the agreement puts no cap on total potential claims.
Under its terms, the settlement is a class-action agreement, meaning that unless eligible candidates specifically opt out by an Oct. 2 deadline, they automatically will be included in the settlement.
The agreement has received preliminary approval from U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing the case, but will not be finalized until after a hearing Nov. 8.
The medical portion of the settlement would provide up to $60,700 each to Gulf Coast residents who attribute illnesses to the spill and remain in the class action. The amount they can receive will depend on the seriousness of their condition and the documentation they can provide.
Conditions that could qualify include non-acute sicknesses such as eye, respiratory, rashes and neurological issues, such as headaches.
People who accept the settlement would retain the right to sue for spill-related illnesses that develop later, but only for actual medical expenses, not punitive damages.
Robin Greenwald, a lawyer and Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee member who was one of the architects of the medical settlement, said it is designed to permit claimants who take the deal to use evidence gathered by the committee to collect compensatory damages for future illnesses.
For example, she said, a resident who developed lung cancer in 10 years would not have to prove BP spilled oil or even exposure to it. That would be presumed for those who accept the settlement.
“There are so many proof points in this kind of a case, but none of that would be required for the medical side, if you have a doctor that opines that it is from the oil,” she said. “But that is only if you participate in the settlement.”
Still, some potential participants are skeptical of promises about the future. And they have questions, such as whether their heirs would get any compensation if they died from an ailment that develops later.
Malcolm Coco, a 43-year-old Louisiana cleanup worker exposed both to oil and the dispersant used to break it up, said he’s concerned that the medical side of the settlement would limit his or his survivors’ right to sue.
‘Left in the cold’
“I have a toddler and a baby on the way, and if something were to happen to me, I would hate for them not to be provided for,” Coco said. “If my wife did not have any other ability to sue, I think they would be left out in the cold.”
The settlement includes a medical monitoring program, which allows participants to get checkups every three years for the next 21 years.
And it establishes a $105 million grant program to improve medical service in the Gulf region.
“What is good about this is that it creates some health facilities in rural locations for people in vocations where they typically don’t have insurance,” said Brent Coon, a Beaumont-based attorney representing thousands of clients in spill-related claims. “It also provides a medical monitoring program, where they may find something related to their exposure and can also be checked for other potential illnesses.”
Coon has recommended that many of his clients take the settlement.
The long-term health data collected also could provide evidence needed to prove a connection between the spill and specific diseases that might crop up down the road.
“We are going to be able to follow the long-term health consequences to these people from these kinds of injuries,” Coon said. “It will provide the epidemiological evidence for possible future claims down the road. Doctors don’t usually have the time to do a 30-year study to see what is wrong.”
Eligible class members are cleanup workers, including those who worked on boats hired by BP and those who helped clean up the shores or wildlife, and residents who live in specific areas near the Gulf Coast.
Hatcher doesn’t know how much money he would be entitled to from the settlement offer and hasn’t decided whether to opt in.
He believes that a long bout with bronchitis in 2010 and subsequent health problems, including memory loss and a persistent cough, resulted from his cleanup work.
“I feel like, since the oil spill, my health has dropped by about 40 per-cent,” Hatcher said, noting that he worked every day for months after the spill but now has persistent feelings of fatigue. “I have been off work, it seems like, forever. I am starting to try to pick up a little bit here and there.”
Many Gulf Coast residents, however, are more focused on the spill’s economic devastation.
“I have no idea what I’m eligible for, and I am not that interested, to be honest,” said Jennifer Sugasti, a resident of Lafitte, La., whose family has worked in the fishing industry for five generations. “I am not looking into it.”
“The fishermen are still losing their houses, and no one wants to buy our shrimp. You can’t live off the current prices,” she said. “What they have done is put the nail in the coffin to a lifestyle we have been trying to save.”