Next week's one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster marks a deadline for those planning to sue the rig owner and another day of recordkeeping for those making claims against the operator.
The April 20, 2010 explosion of the oil rig, owned by Transocean under contract to British Petroleum (BP), caused 11 deaths and leaked oil into the Gulf of Mexico until July 15.
While oil did not reach the shores of Anna Maria Island, tourists stayed away from beaches around the state after oil washed up on Florida Panhandle beaches.
Federal closures in the Gulf kept local commercial fishermen at the dock and caused the cancellation of recreational fishing tournaments. Seafood producers scrambled to prove product safety.
Emergency managers fine-tuned plans to protect local waters with booms. Scientists began baseline water testing for later comparison.
Wildlife rescuers prepared for bird, turtle and marine mammal rescue missions. Protestors twice lined the Island's beaches wearing black.
And, like the oil gushing into the Gulf, damage claims and lawsuits began pouring in.
BP claimants getting paid
More than 173,000 Floridians have filed claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), which took over claims administration from BP last August. About 76 percent of the claims are from businesses and 24 percent are from individuals, according to the GCCF.
As of April 7, BP paid about $1.5 billion in Florida claims and about $3.8 billion in total claims from its $20 billion fund.
The deadline has passed to file a claim for an "emergency advance payment," but claims still can be filed until Aug. 23, 2013 for a "full review final payment claim" for all past and future losses caused by the spill or an "interim payment claim" for all past losses caused by the spill.
Jim Brady, owner of the West Coast Surf Shop in Holmes Beach, said he is satisfied with the claims process, and has received emergency payments and interim payments in a timely manner.
He filed his first claim in November at the GCCF's Clearwater office and supplied income tax and sales tax records to show the difference in profits before and after the spill.
The payments are between 70 to 100 percent of the claimed losses, depending on economic factors, he said.
He encourages other business owners to file, saying, "You have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Another longtime Island retailer who did not want to be identified also complimented the claims process.
"They were very good to us. They responded very quickly," she said. "They tell you what they want and if you have the proper documentation they pay it."
Ken Gerry, manager of White Sands Beach Resort in Holmes Beach, considered filing when guests began calling and asking whether oil had hit local beaches, but his occupancy stayed consistent, so it was not necessary, he said.
Jason Suzor, of the Waterfront Restaurant in Anna Maria, said he is considering filing, pending the completion of his income tax return.
Claims with no records denied
One local business owner said his claim was denied.
Wavesplash Watersports at the Bradenton Beach Marina had just opened when the oil spill occurred. Co-owner Louis Mandel filed a claim with BP, then had to refile when the GCCF took over. After answering several requests for more information, he was told his documentation was insufficient.
"Maybe it was because we weren't in business long enough" to prove a loss, he said, adding that he used the claims process rather than hire an attorney who would deduct fees and costs from any recovery.
Startup businesses are more closely scrutinized by the GCCF, said Justin Bloom, a Sarasota attorney representing oil spill clients from Louisiana to Florida, who visited Cortez after the spill to offer his services to fishermen.
Employees also are having problems getting claims paid, he said, adding that restaurant workers and motel cleaning staff often do not have the required records that their employers have.
"The most difficult thing is to get financial records in order," he said. "We've been asking for hardship letters from employers to help employees. The longer they wait, the harder it is to get that."
Business owners and individuals interested in filing claims should compile income tax returns, occupancy, sales or income figures for the past three years, mitigation efforts, cancelled contracts and financial statements.
To file a claim online, visit www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com.
Litigation deadline looming
When the claims process fails, a lawsuit is an alternative.
"Our plan is to settle in the GCCF, and if we don't get a good resolution then we'll litigate," Bloom said.
Anyone who intends to sue Transocean for Deepwater Horizon-related losses has until April 20 to file a form preserving their claim against Transocean, Bloom said, adding that the company is not participating in the BP fund administered by the GCCF.
Lawsuit issues will include claims for medical losses and long-term commercial fishing losses arising from human and marine life exposure to oil and chemical dispersants, as well as potential damage to beaches by oil stirred up by future hurricanes, he said.
According to Transocean's 2010 annual report to shareholders, dated April 1, 2011, "It remains our view that Transocean is contractually indemnified against all claims stemming from the environmental and economic impacts of the hydrocarbons spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from the Macondo well after the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon."
Nine of the 11 crew members who died in the disaster were Transocean employees.
For more information about the Transocean litigation, contact a lawyer or visit www.laed.uscourts.gov/OilSpill/Forms/Forms.htm.