WASHINGTON – The administrator of a $20 billion Gulf oil spill compensation fund offered a hard sell Monday, promising fishermen and others with lost income claims from the disaster that he'll be more generous with them than any court would be.
Kenneth Feinberg noted that claimants are free to instead file a lawsuit, but added, "You're crazy to do so, though."
"Because under this program, you will receive, if you're eligible, compensation without having to go to court for years, without the uncertainty of going to court, since I'll be much more generous than any court will be," Feinberg said. "And at the same time, you won't need to pay lawyers and costs."
Feinberg made the comments in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., but his target audience included people and businesses who have suffered economic harm in the Gulf Coast area. He sounded like a TV pitchman, reminding them they were under "no obligation" to waive their rights to sue, unless and until they decide to accept a lump sum for all present and future injury.
He noted that claimants could get emergency payments for six months without giving up their right to sue.
"If you decide after that to litigate, you still keep the check. I mean, who wouldn't come into this program?" he asked in an incredulous tone. "It is, to my way of thinking, an easy call."
Feinberg on Sunday said that the wages earned by people working on BP's cleanup will be deducted from their claims against the company, however.
He told The Associated Press the fund is designed to compensate fishermen and others for their lost income. If BP PLC is already paying someone to help skim oil and perform other clean up work, Feinberg said, those wages will be subtracted from the amount they're eligible to claim from the fund.
Feinberg said the rule is "very fair" and shouldn't eliminate an incentive for boat captains to participate in BP's vessel of opportunity cleanup program.
BP is paying vessel owners between $1,200 and $3,000 a day to help with the clean up.
Feinberg earlier administered compensation funds for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Agent Orange and the Virginia Tech massacre. From them, he's learned that the job involves a lot of salesmanship.
"Do not assume that people automatically will opt into these programs," he said. "People are skeptical, angry, dispirited, worried about their financial certainty, their financial future. Human nature being what it is, you have to sell these programs."
Feinberg said his job requires an "emotional perspective" for people, like an oysterman who's been in the family business for six generations. No matter how good a program you come up with, he said, "You've still got to sell them to people who are emotionally distraught."
At a news conference following the speech, he took issue with the suggestion that the fund represented an overreach of federal power.
"The notion that this is somehow a trick, or a power play, or is anything other than a way to resolve a national tragedy is, I think, unfair," Feinberg said. "And I'm determined to administer a program that will be fair, will be transparent, and will benefit the very people it's designed to benefit who live in the Gulf."
Feinberg, who is being paid by BP, declined to provide his salary. "That's something between me and BP," he said.