Legal aid fine-tuning role in BP oil spill claims

89.9 WNNO, NPR affiliate

As government and corporate representatives negotiate damages stemming from the BP oil spill, legal aid advocates are noting hundreds of low-income residents are stuck in filing damage claims of their own. Lawyers are setting up a system to ensure a quick response to future disasters for the most vulnerable residents.

Martha Bergmark is president of the Mississippi Center for Justice. She says that after Hurricane Katrina, a dozen legal aid providers across the Gulf states formed a coalition to help.

“We came together immediately after the oil disaster to begin assessing what the needs were going to be. And we realized a key need was going to be for the same clients we helped after Katrina, helping them navigate the claims process against BP, and eventually when Gulf Coast Claims Facility came into existence to help them navigate that process as well.”

Bergmark spoke with colleagues gathered in New Orleans at the American Bar Association meeting. She says there’s a need to set up a formal system for offering legal help immediately after disasters. She says the coalition has met with 6,000 people, with over 4,000 becoming clients. Bergmark says coalition attorneys have helped recover more than $9 million in claims checks.

”We will be making recommendations to the claims process, to the Justice Department, to the Bar Association, to say ‘Here’s how this should be better in the future.’ ”

Bergmark says there are now 1,400 open cases – most involving those unwilling to accept a final payment and waive claims for future damages. She credits GCCF with pointing claimants to their services last fall, a move that caused a spike in people seeking legal aid.