By Sasha Chavkin, ProPublica
BP's $20 billion fund to compensate those hurt by the Gulf oil spill
will probably turn down one controversial class of claims: those for
mental health problems.
In little-noted testimony
before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21, Kenneth Feinberg, the
independent "claims czar" who will decide who gets compensated, said the
fund was not likely to pay damages for mental illness and distress
alleged to be caused by the spill.
"If you start compensating purely mental anguish without a physical
injury -- anxiety, stress -- we'll be getting millions of claims from
people watching television," Feinberg said. "You have to draw the line
somewhere. I think it would be highly unlikely that we would compensate
mental damage, alleged damage, without a signature physical injury as
Feinberg's policy will affect individuals and businesses with claims
against BP, but not claims by the government. Claims by state and local
governments for the costs of additional services will not be evaluated
by Feinberg, and are handled directly by BP.
As we've reported, the Louisiana health department has warned of a looming mental health crisis in communities affected by the oil spill and is pressing BP to pay for its costs. On July 9, health commissioner Alan Levine wrote to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
that state counseling teams were encountering "increases in anxiety,
depression, stress, grief, excessive and earlier drinking and suicide
ideation" following the disaster. BP has not yet responded to
Louisiana's request that it pay $10 million to cover the costs of
emergency mental health services.
BP spokeswoman Patricia Wright said that the calls for funding for mental health services -- which have also been submitted by Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- have been requests rather than formal claims. She confirmed that the company has not yet responded to the requests.
While Feinberg's standard is separate from BP's policy on requests or
possible claims by states, it shows that he is following the guidelines
set by liability law. Tort law generally holds that mental health
problems must be accompanied by a physical injury to merit compensation,
David Owen, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, has
However, Congress could direct Feinberg to expand the type of damages
that his fund will cover. When Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D- Texas, pointedly asked him
at the July 21 hearing if he would cover damages such as mental health
if Congress passed a law requiring it, Feinberg replied that he would.