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Saturday, Nov 22, 2014
Crime & Courts

Tampa church’s compensation emblematic of BP settlement


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TALLAHASSEE — If your treasure is where your heart is, as the Bible says, then one Tampa church is feeling a lot of love for oil giant BP.

MorningStar Church, a 150-member Christian congregation in Citrus Park, received a cash award from the court-approved settlement fund for the 2010 BP oil spill.

Tony Byrd, MorningStar’s senior pastor, wouldn’t disclose the amount but said “it was well worth our time” to file a claim. Compensation amounts are confidential.

The church hasn’t gotten its check yet, but the money will help break ground on a church building and day care center.

“At first, I wasn’t sure about the ethics of it,” Byrd said. “I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ or be ‘that church’ that took money we weren’t entitled to.”

In fact, MorningStar was entitled, under generous settlement terms that BP agreed to and is now regretting.

Its award is emblematic of the headache BP and its shareholders are now suffering.

Hundreds of thousands of “economic loss” claims – such as the one from Byrd’s church, 16 miles from the Gulf coast – have rolled into the claims administrator for the settlement.

“While BP has estimated that the total costs of the settlement will be approximately $7.8 billion, there is no limit on the total amount of the settlement,” the court-approved website said. “The actual total amount paid out will depend on the number of qualified claims made, and could be higher or lower than BP’s estimate.”

“That’s the way the attorneys hammered it out,” said Joe Briner, chief operating officer of ClaimsComp, the Georgia-based company that helped MorningStar get paid.

“Frankly, maybe BP was too accommodating,” Briner added. “But as the courts have said, ‘It’s not our job to protect you from yourself.’”

The oil well under BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform blew out in April 2010, killing 11 rig workers and injuring 17. The well wasn’t capped until that July, after millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf.

Oil slicks and tarballs washed up on 1,100 miles of beaches and marsh along the coast, keeping away the usual summer tourists and their money.

BP, seeking to avoid a litigation nightmare, created a fund to pay economic losses in areas bordering the Gulf, including the Tampa Bay area. Operations in certain industries were removed from consideration, including those in gambling, banking, insurance and real estate.

Other businesses and nonprofits that could show they lost a certain amount of money in late 2010 could make a claim without having to prove a direct link to the spill. That’s created a cottage industry of claims processors and law firms focused on BP payouts.

For instance, Briner said ClaimsComp didn’t exist before last year. Since then, it’s generated more than $100 million in claims and takes a 25 percent fee.

“We realized there was an opportunity to be proactive and it took off like wildfire,” said Briner, who previously was a wealth management banker with SunTrust and Bank of America.

Byrd knew that his church, which makes money through tithes and gifts, had taken a financial hit after the oil spill. He said revenue had decreased about 40 percent to 45 percent over the year after the spill.

“We knew people were getting downsized, taking pay cuts,” he said.

Byrd said he got a message from ClaimsComp one day, asking him if he wanted to file a claim in the BP settlement.

“It never dawned on me we might qualify,” he said. “I mean, we’re a church, not a fishing boat or a hotel on the beach.”

He says he didn’t call them back right away. When he finally did, a ClaimsComp representative showed him the light.

“They explained that if you do business with the boat owner or with the hotel, there’s a trickle down effect,” Byrd said. In his case, that meant contributions from congregants.

ClaimsComp told Byrd to send them the church’s financial books, and they’d do the work. So he did.

“ClaimsComp has been a great friend to us,” Byrd said. His church is one of 22 the firm has helped.

Briner estimates there are still about 4.5 million business, personal and property claims out there, yet to be filed.

That’s why his company sends out 5,000 letters a week to potential claimants in the five states affected by the spill.

“This is the largest class-action settlement in history, so we knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as hiring a bunch of contractors in pickups to go around knocking on doors,” Briner said. “There’s a science to it.”

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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