NEW ORLEANS – The man who has overseen the long, complicated job of paying out billions of dollars to the victims of the BP oil spill was relieved of his duties Thursday when a federal court took over the claims process in the aftermath of a historic settlement agreement.
U.S District Judge Carl Barbier's order calls for a court-appointed administrator to take over from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility led by Kenneth Feinberg, who previously oversaw a compensation fund for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The move is part of a proposed multibillion-dollar settlement between BP and plaintiffs' attorneys representing more than 100,000 individuals and businesses.
Feinberg said he was honored to oversee the claims process that BP created after its blown-out Macondo well triggered a deadly rig explosion in April 2010 and spawned the nation's worst offshore oil spill.
"It was a difficult assignment, but I think we fulfilled our mandate," Feinberg told The Associated Press during a telephone interview Thursday. "I think we did the job and we did it right."
BP agreed to pay up to $20 billion to compensate commercial fishermen, charter captains, property owners, hotels and others who claim they suffered economic losses after the spill. The GCCF has processed about 221,300 claims and paid out more than $6 billion from the fund.
The judge appointed Lynn Greer, a Richmond, Va.-based attorney, to fill in for Feinberg and serve as transition coordinator. Patrick Juneau, a Lafayette-based attorney, will take over for Greer and serve as the court-appointed administrator for economic loss claims if Barbier gives preliminary approval to the settlement announced last Friday.
BP said it expects to pay out $7.8 billion in the settlement, but plaintiffs' attorneys say the deal is uncapped. Plaintiffs' attorneys who brokered the settlement have maintained that the court-supervised claims process is a better vehicle for resolving claims than the GCCF has been.
"I think that's wonderful if they can make it more generous and broaden the eligibility criteria," Feinberg said.
The fund paid out the most to businesses and individuals who lost wages and earnings because of the spill, or about $5.9 billion. But the fund also covered other claims and paid about $250,000 to fishermen and communities — such as American Indians — that depend on seafood in their daily lives, $198 million to cover death and injury claims stemming from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, $6.4 million for property damage and $2.6 million for cleanup.
The fund paid out emergency claims right after the spill, and then moved to get claimants to accept a final offer or take interim payments.
In a statement on Friday's settlement announcement, BP Group CEO Bob Dudley thanked Feinberg and his team for their "dedication and professionalism" since the GCCF began operating in August 2010.
Feinberg's critics complained that the GCCF, at least in its early days, processed claims too slowly and overlooked certain types of claims, including those by people who blamed ailments on exposure to oil and dispersants. Others questioned his independence.
"He was not independent. He was hand-picked by BP. He was paid by BP," said Miami-based attorney Ervin Gonzalez, a member of the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee.
Gonzalez said the court-supervised settlement process offers "fair and full compensation without the administrative and bureaucratic burdens that were created by BP's GCCF."
Feinberg didn't shy away from his critics. He frequently attended town hall meetings across the Gulf Coast, fielding questions from angry fishermen and others whose lives were disrupted by the spill.
"You have to be willing to confront your critics," Feinberg said.
During the transition, individuals and businesses with pending settlement offers from the GCCF will be able receive 60 percent of the existing offer while they consider whether to participate in the court settlement. If they opt out, they must sign a release to get the remaining 40 percent. If they opt in, the court-supervised process will decide if they are entitled to more than what the GCCF offered.
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau in New Orleans contributed to this report.