Nearly 50,000 individuals and businesses have taken a "quick" final claims payment and signed away their right to sue anyone involved in the Gulf oil spill, though a free legal advice program promised by the claims operation is not yet fully functional.
The legal aid program will be up and running Friday, according to officials with the administrating agency, the Mississippi Center for Justice. Claims czar Ken Feinberg said he’s already referred 500 people to the program.
To get the money claimants must agree not to make additional claims or sue parties involved in the spill.
Two other options are available: final settlements, which cover all present and future damages and also require a lawsuit waiver; and quarterly interim payments, which don’t require a waiver. Both options require claimants to document their damages.
The lawsuit waiver has become controversial. Trial lawyers have argued that it is too broad. Attorneys general from Gulf Coast states have warned people to be cautious before signing it. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has asked that the waiver be removed from the process altogether.
Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the New York-based Center for Justice and Democracy, called the large number of people signing waivers "an enormous problem."
"It’s not possible that everybody understands it," she said. "The whole process has been horribly confusing. I think some people are just giving up at this point because it’s been so burdensome to get anything from the fund."
Doroshow’s group, according to its website, advocates for the right to trial by jury in civil cases, opposes tort reform and was "founded by consumer advocates to protect the civil justice system."
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