A $20 billion compensation fund for economic victims of the BP Plc Gulf oil spill opens for business on Monday amid accusations that the rules established by its administrator are unfair.
Kenneth Feinberg who will run the fund said those who sustained financial loss because of the spill could claim for damages and he promised claimants more generous treatment than they would get if they sued the energy giant for damages.
"The goal here is to try and explain to eligible claimants: 'It is not in your interest to tie up yourself and the courts in years of uncertain protracted litigation when ... there is a more efficient quick alternative'" Feinberg told a news conference on Sunday.
"The goal will be to pay any individual claim within 48 hours of the claim being finalized and seven days for any business claim," he said.
BP set up the fund in June under pressure from the White House to come up with a remedy for the losses sustained in the fishing, tourism and other industries on the Gulf of Mexico coast because of the leak that began in April and was capped in July.
Feinberg was named its administrator because of the reputation for fairness he acquired administering the 9/11 fund and determining executive pay for companies bailed out by the government during the recession.
But the spill fund may provide an even tougher challenge, according to insurance experts who said calculating claims for businesses would be particularly difficult.
For the next six months, anyone claiming an emergency payment can also sue BP at a future date but beyond that period claimants would forfeit the right file against the company, Feinberg said.
The position is controversial. Florida's Attorney General Bill McCollum issued a statement last week saying the ruling favors BP and weakens provisions advocated by state attorney generals along the coast.
"The current process appears to be even less generous to Floridians than the BP process. Such an outcome is completely unacceptable," McCollum said in a statement.
In his defense, Feinberg said the idea for the cut-off point was his rather than BP's.
"I am beholden to neither the administration nor BP. I am entirely independent," Feinberg said, adding that entry into the compensation process was voluntary.
He said no decision had been taken on whether people who claimed after the six-month window would be able to sue other companies involved with the rig that exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill.
So far, BP has paid $375 million in compensation, Feinberg said, though that money was separate from the $20 billion.
Even so, a flood of new claimants were expected to hit the 35 offices set up in the five coastal states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida when they opened for business.
Claimants could also apply by mail and online at www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility.com.