Pro Bono Spring Break Trip – New Opportunities for Oil Spill Victims

This entry is cross-posted at www.cslprobonoblog.wordpress.com as part of the CSL Pro Bono Program’s student spring break trip to the Mississippi Center for Justice. Check out the Pro Bono Blog for stories from other CSL students at the Mississippi Center for Justice, in San Diego, and in Lebanon.

Since the months following the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the process of obtaining compensation from BP has been convoluted, drawn out and utterly confusing. The Mississippi Center for Justice has worked tirelessly since those early days to help frustrated and desperate people obtain the compensation they deserve. Residents have suffered losses ranging from death and bodily injury, to failed businesses, to loss of a vital food source for their family.

The Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) has been in charge of evaluating and disbursing the money BP has set aside for the victims. The GCCF has consistently been subject to criticisms that they are inconsistent, dilatory, and generally disagreeable to those seeking its help. As a result of this ongoing criticism, a new settlement is being negotiated. The settlement will establish a new claims process, the Court Supervised Claims Program. As of now, the terms of the settlement have not been released. Supposedly, this program will be more generous to those that have suffered losses as a result of BP’s oil disaster. The victim’s burden of proof will likely be lessened and payouts will be greater. Those that have not qualified for payment under the GCCF program, such as recreational fishermen, will be able to obtain compensation under the new settlement.

However, this rosy outlook is almost purely speculative. For now, a court order has established a “Transition Process” that will act as a stopgap between the conclusion of the GCCF process, and the establishment of the Court Supervised Claims Program. Overall, the GCCF process is maintained through the Transition Process, however there are several substantive changes in the methodologies that will directly affect potential claimants. In order to make claimants aware of these changes, the GCCF sent out a letter attempting to explain the intricacies of the changes. Their efforts were hardly successful. After reading the letter, with a partial legal education under our belts, the CSL volunteers were still completely baffled as to what the changes really were. Considering that a great deal of the people to whom the letter is addressed will only have a high school education, if that, it is not likely that the letter would give them any sort of understand of the changes either. This is where the Mississippi Center for Justice, and the CSL Oil Spill Super Team come in.

The Team has reviewed the court order establishing the Transition Process, along with a number of supporting documents from the GCCF website, and has finally been able to get a grasp of the true substance of the changes to the process. Armed with this understanding, our goal is to draft a letter to the Mississippi Center for Justice’s clients that will provide them with a true understanding of the changes, and their options going forward. We have found this is not an easy task. Translating the convoluted legalese of the GCCF letter into something that a layperson  can understand has proved to be challenging. When working to serve the underserved, it is important to remember that the process must be understandable to those we are seeking to help. It is far too easy to forget that when we are buried in our casebooks and cramming for an exam. While providing proper understanding to the Center’s client’s will not be simple, it is an essential part of serving the underserved.

– Evan Carney

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