WASHINGTON — One month into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, fishermen finally are collecting payments from the oil giant BP as a series of legal challenges winds its way through courts in multiple Gulf Coast states.
In the shadows of the huge efforts to clean up the spill and to plug the still-spewing leak, the fishermen have quietly won judgments that force BP not to limit payments, to implement stronger safety standards for fishermen who are participating in the cleanup and to abolish waivers that would have compromised their ability to sue the company in case of an accident.
With a growing number of fishermen reporting that they've received the first $5,000 compensation payments BP promised them, their latest legal battle is trying to fix a payment process that they describe as slow, inconsistent and needlessly cumbersome.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Louisiana on behalf of several hundred commercial fishermen, lawyers have asked for a court-appointed judge to supervise the processing of emergency compensation claims. With some 19 percent of the Gulf of Mexico declared off-limits to fishing, BP has agreed to pay fishermen in the affected areas for every month that the waters are closed because of the spill.
The suit alleges, however, that claims adjusters contracted by BP are requiring fishermen to produce excessive paperwork — everything from multiple years' tax returns to fuel receipts — in order to receive the payments, which currently are fixed at $5,000. In some cases in Louisiana, fishermen said they'd been asked to return to claims centers multiple times and to produce logs of their catches, which they usually submit only to state wildlife authorities.
"We have grave concerns about the confidentiality of this data," said Val Patrick Exnicios, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "These are folks in dire straits, and they're compelled to provide their personal, private information. There needs to be some court supervision so there's not abuses."
The suit also accuses the company of discriminating against fishermen who've hired attorneys by pushing them to the "back of the line" for receiving payment.
"It wouldn't come as any great surprise that BP would prefer to deal with unrepresented victims as opposed to dealing with victims who have the benefit of experienced counsel," Exnicios said.
A spokesman for BP, Scott Dean, said the company didn't comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit, to which BP is expected to respond next week, is one of more than 100 spill-related cases that have been filed in five Gulf Coast states, attorneys said. While it could be months before most cases find their way to court, lawyers for shrimpers and fishermen have won judgments to loosen restrictions that BP imposed immediately after the April 20 explosion of its Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
A judge in U.S. District Court in eastern Louisiana earlier this month nullified agreements BP was distributing that could have waived the rights of fishermen who were participating in the cleanup to seek future damages from the company or to speak publicly about it without the company's consent.
In a separate ruling, a federal judge ordered BP to ensure that fishermen were properly trained and equipped before they joined the cleanup crew.
"I think maybe they thought we were a bunch of dummies down here," said George Barisich, 54, the president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association in Louisiana. "We got enough fishermen with sense to hire decent attorneys. We got a battle on our hands, because we could lose so much."
BP officials said this week that they've paid out $15.6 million in legal claims, mostly to shrimpers and fishermen. Experts say that amount probably will be dwarfed by the total damages the company is expected to pay at the end of a major class-action suit involving potentially tens of thousands of other plaintiffs.
"We intend to continue replacing this lost income for as long as the situation warrants," Lamar McKay, the president of BP America, told a Senate hearing this week. "We are responding to claims as quickly and as responsibly as possible."
The company said it would launch an online claims-filing system this week, and it planned to add more walk-in claims offices to the 12 that already were open in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Some fishermen in Louisiana, however, complained that the claims adjusters — including many local residents contracted by BP — were giving conflicting instructions and taking too long to process payments. The process has contributed to what fishermen described as an atmosphere of chaos and confusion, and they worried that if the spill drags on it will become more difficult to receive compensation.
"It's totally inequitable," said Barisich, a lifelong shrimper who lives in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans. "My brother and I are in business together. He had to bring lease papers to the boats, and go back two or three more times bringing this guy more stuff. My deckhand went back four times to get his check."
For many Louisiana fishermen, May is usually the start of the season, and the time of the year when they make most of their money. This time last year, Barisich said, he made more catching oysters in two days than BP paid him for the month. Still, having taken out loans to prepare his two boats for a fishing season that's now vanished, Barisich had to accept the money.
Lawyers said that even several months' worth of compensation wouldn't replace what most would have earned if the spill hadn't happened.
"We applaud BP for initiating the initial $5,000 payments," Exnicios said. "We just think it's woefully inadequate in light of the realities of the fishing industry."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
For McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010