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NYT: Many Hit by Spill Now Feel Caught in Claim Process

April 18, 2011- BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. — By October, Tim Nguyen found that his work in a Mississippi shipyard was no longer paying the bills. His hours had been cut back, part of the general ebb of work along the Gulf Coast after the terrible summer of BP.

Mr. Nguyen went to an office of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which was set up to administer BP’s $20 billion fund for coastal businesses and residents.

He was told he could not file a claim. A law firm he had never heard of had already filed one in his name.

“I never signed up with anybody,” he said.

In the six months since, Mr. Nguyen, 43, has been in limbo, suspended between the law firm and the claims facility. He has yet to receive a dime.

The 30,000 or so Vietnamese-Americans living along the Gulf Coast, many of whom have few resources outside of their boats and bare hands, know about life at the mercy of nature. But a year ago this week, they began learning a far more frustrating kind of vulnerability: put out of work by an energy giant, they turned for help to a claims system that many found to be opaque and unresponsive.

For people in Mr. Nguyen’s situation, and it is impossible to know how many others there are, the disorientation has been particularly deep, as they found themselves caught up in a legal process they did not even seek.

Like Mr. Nguyen, some maintain that they never signed up with lawyers, but found that claims had been filed on their behalf (about 50 people have made formal complaints to the claims facility along these lines).

Others along the coast said they had handed over financial records to people who promised them quick and free financial assistance, only to discover later that they had actually hired a lawyer.

And then there are those, like Tam Tran, a 59-year-old oyster shucker. He said he had been misled into signing up for a lawyer by a woman who told him he was applying for medical assistance. In the process of trying to extricate himself from this lawyer, Mr. Tran said, he found he was also a client of another.

Discovering the problem, as Mr. Tran learned, can be merely the beginning, leading to months of back and forth between the firm and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, during which the claimant, often badly in need of money, is frozen out of the system entirely.



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