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New Man in Charge of BP Claims Greeted With Threat of Widespread Lawsuits

By Gina Jordan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-921078.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – The man who's been overseeing the Gulf Coast Compensation Fund has now taken over the oil spill claims process from BP. In his first week, independent Administrator Ken Feinberg has been hit with the threat of legal action by Florida's hoteliers. Plus, survey results may give more ammunition to business owners seeking reimbursement for damages. Gina Jordan has more on efforts by those seeking a share of the $20-billion pie.

The state government has received $110-million from BP so far, with more requested. Much of that has gone toward advertising to lure back skittish tourists. Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing corporation, has just released results from two summer surveys on the perception of a thousand leisure travelers.

"Nearly one in five respondents indicated they had changed their plans to vacation at the beach because of the oil spill, so roughly twenty-percent. Additionally, eight in ten specifically chose not to visit a Florida beach destination because of the spill."

Jerry McDaniel is director of the Governor's Office of Policy and Budget. He chairs the Economic Impact Assessment Working Group, an offshoot of the Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force.

"Fourteen percent of travelers were less likely to visit Florida, representing a significant potential economic loss to the state's tourism industry."

Even though oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf, ripples from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion last April are still being felt. Nelson Mongiovi, Marketing Director for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, wants to stay aggressive in promoting the state through the fall and winter.

"So many individuals who consume seafood who come to our state as tourists are repeat users, and once they get a taste of the substitution, once they go to another state for a tourism opportunity or once they start purchasing products other than seafood as a source of protein, a large percentage of them will stay away unless you continually stay after them."

Whether Florida gets additional money to do that is up to Ken Feinberg. He administered the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Now he's charged with distributing $20-billion BP has set aside for oil spill claims. He does not have the confidence of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. President and CEO Carol Dover says they've taken the first step toward legal action.

"The association has in fact lawyered up, as much as I hate it. But it became very evident that we had no choice. Many people say, Wait, why, because Mr. Feinberg just took over on Monday?' But we actually have had numerous meetings with Mr. Feinberg. There are certain indicators that just are not going to change."

The association has retained three law firms well known for mass tort litigation, which refers to harm done to a number of people by a product or action. Dover says businesses are being denied compensation from BP based on the fact that there is no oil on the beach.

"They are dependent on the natural resource of the beach for their tourism, and their nature of business is tourism. What's throwing them out is their proximity."

The consortium of lawyers wants Feinberg to reconsider his definitions of proximity, since hotels and restaurants throughout the state are seeing decreased profits related to the oil spill and subsequent media attention. Dover says claims that are denied or that are not satisfactorily paid will wind up in court.

"That's not the news that I had hoped to give you. I had hoped to sit here today and tell you congratulations, my members are happy and claims are being paid, and it's not the case at all."

Feinberg has said he will make claims decisions based on state and federal law, which can be open to interpretation.