Last resort: Legal Services of North Florida
Small business owners and low-income workers turn to a North Florida non-profit for help recovering money lost after the BP oil spill.
Artist Barry Fludd turned to Legal Services of North Florida after he felt that BP was giving him "the run-around." [Photo: Ray Stanyard]
Six months after the spill — when he felt he could legally demonstrate that the spill had driven away his customers and hurt his business — he applied for a piece of BP's $20-billion compensation fund. He's still waiting for a check.
"I started this process in October 2010, and it's a year later and they still want more documentation from me," he says. "I'm no accountant. I'm an artist. I think they're giving me the run-around just so I give up and go away."
Instead, the 58-year-old former commercial fisherman sought help from Legal Services of North Florida. The non-profit, which provides free legal services to clients who earn less than 125% of poverty guidelines, helped him put together a $50,000 claim to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which is handling claims for BP.
"They put together a stack of papers an inch thick," he says. "I never knew I had so much paperwork."
So far this year, Legal Services of North Florida has given legal advice or provided free claims work for more than 1,200 Florida oil spill clients, recovering $600,000 in compensation so far. Of the non-profit's 20 attorneys in 16 north Florida counties, four essentially do oil spill work full time. Their clients are typically low-income service workers in the tourism industry or small-business owners seeking relatively modest compensation packages.
"An attorney charging a contingency fee on a $5,000 claim might result in not much money left over because the claims process requires loads of paperwork and time," says Leslie Powell, managing attorney in Legal Services of North Florida's Pensacola office. "We found that a lot of private attorneys weren't taking the small cases."
To meet oil spill-related demand, Legal Services has had to supplement its $4.1-million annual budget, which is supported by grants from the Legal Services Corp., the Florida Bar Foundation, the Florida Attorney General's Office, the Florida Coalition Against Sexual Violence, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, local governments, the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program, the Area Agency on Aging, the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic and private contributions.
Since the spill, Legal Services of North Florida received a $425,000 grant from the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund and a $200,000 grant from the Florida Bar Foundation earmarked for spill victims.
Some of the money has gone to hosting one-day clinics where spill victims can consult with an attorney, get help filing a claim or ask questions about the claims process.
"There are people who don't know how to file for a claim, or they may be intimidated by the process," says Kris Knab, Legal Service's executive director. "There also may be language barriers."