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American Scene: Federal court takes over BP’s Gulf oil spill claims

- - Thursday, March 8, 2012

LOUISIANA

Federal court takes over BP's Gulf oil spill claims

NEW ORLEANS | The man who has overseen the long, complicated job of paying out billions of dollars to the victims of the BP oil spill was relieved of his duties Thursday when a federal court took over the claims process in the aftermath of a historic settlement agreement.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier's order calls for a court-appointed administrator to take over from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility led by Kenneth R. Feinberg, who previously oversaw a compensation fund for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The move is part of a proposed multibillion-dollar settlement between BP and plaintiffs' attorneys representing more than 100,000 individuals and businesses.

Mr. Feinberg said he was honored to oversee the claims process that BP created after its blown-out Macondo well triggered a deadly rig explosion in April 2010 and spawned the nation's worst offshore oil spill.

"It was a difficult assignment, but I think we fulfilled our mandate," Mr. Feinberg said. "I think we did the job and we did it right."

BP agreed to pay up to $20 billion to compensate commercial fishermen, charter captains, property owners, hotels and others who claim they suffered economic losses after the spill. The GCCF has processed about 221,300 claims and paid out more than $6 billion from the fund.

The judge appointed Lynn Greer, a Richmond, Va.-based attorney, to fill in for Mr. Feinberg and serve as transition coordinator. Patrick Juneau, a Lafayette-based attorney, will take over and serve as the court-appointed administrator for economic-loss claims if Judge Barbier gives preliminary approval to the settlement announced last Friday.

BP said it expects to pay out $7.8 billion in the settlement, but plaintiffs' attorneys say the deal is uncapped. Plaintiffs' attorneys who brokered the settlement have maintained that the court-supervised claims process is a better vehicle for resolving claims than the GCCF has been.

"I think that's wonderful if they can make it more generous and broaden the eligibility criteria," Mr. Feinberg said.

The fund paid out the most to businesses and individuals who lost wages and earnings because of the spill, or about $5.9 billion. The fund also paid out emergency claims right after the spill and then moved to get claimants to accept a final offer or take interim payments.

NEW YORK

Infant's circumcision death prompts city investigation

NEW YORK | New York City authorities are investigating the death of an infant who died after contracting herpes last year through a controversial circumcision ritual.

According to the New York Times, the Brooklyn district attorney on Wednesday confirmed that the investigation into the September death was continuing.

The medical examiner's office determined the cause of death was Type 1 herpes caused by "ritual circumcision with oral suction."

The ritual is almost exclusively practiced in ultra-Orthodox communities. The city has tried to work with the Hasidic community to alert it of the procedure's potential health risks.

The oral-suction ritual involves removing the foreskin of the penis and then sucking the blood from the wound to clean it.

The city reported three cases of Type 1 herpes linked to the ritual in 2003-04. One resulted in death.

CALIFORNIA

Biologists project big Pacific salmon season

SACRAMENTO | Pacific Coast fishermen can start gearing up for what's expected to be the best salmon fishing season in years.

Federal fishery managers are projecting robust populations of Chinook and coho salmon off the Pacific Coast and in California and Oregon rivers.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council on Wednesday approved three options for managing West Coast salmon fisheries this year. All of them give anglers plenty of time to fish later this spring and summer.

The regulatory council is expected to choose a final plan when it meets in Seattle early next month.

Biologists say the number of Chinook salmon returning to the Sacramento, Klamath and Rogue rivers is projected to be significantly higher this year.

In 2008 and 2009, poor salmon returns led to the largest fishery closures on record.

FLORIDA

Family wants answers in teen's shooting death

ORLANDO | The family of a Florida teen who was fatally shot after an encounter with a Neighborhood Watch leader on Thursday has asked the police department investigating the death to release 911 tapes that may help explain how the young man died.

Family members said 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, of Miami, was visiting his father and soon-to-be stepmother last month at their home in a gated community in the Orlando suburb Sanford. He had gone to a convenience store to buy some Skittles and was returning home when he was confronted by an armed man who was head of the local Neighborhood Watch.

The man hasn't been charged. His name and Martin's name were redacted in a preliminary police report.

A spokesman for the Sanford police didn't return a call Thursday.

Martin's father, Tracy, said Thursday that family members were upset that no arrest had been made in the shooting. He described the neighborhood as mixed race, but his attorneys said they believed Trayvon Martin was being profiled at the time of the encounter because he was a young black man. The Neighborhood Watch leader is white. The attorneys also questioned why a Neighborhood Watch leader would carry a gun.

"He was stereotyped for some reason," attorney Ben Crump said of the victim. "Why was Trayvon suspicious? There are hundreds of children in that community."

CALIFORNIA

Man arrested, 40,000 fake erectile drugs seized

LOS ANGELES | A former South Korean law enforcement officer accused of bringing nearly 40,000 phony erectile dysfunction pills into the U.S. has been released on a $10,000 bond.

Kil Jun Lee, 71, made an initial appearance in Los Angeles federal court late Wednesday, and his preliminary hearing was set for March 28.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says Mr. Lee was returning from a trip to South Korea on Feb. 25 when officers at Los Angeles International Airport found the counterfeit Viagra, Cialis and Levitra pills in his luggage.

He was arrested Wednesday at his Los Angeles apartment on charges of trafficking in counterfeit goods.

MAINE

Titanic site mapped fully for first time

SOUTH PORTLAND | Researchers have pieced together what's believed to be the first comprehensive map of the entire 3-by-5-mile Titanic debris field and hope it will provide new clues about what exactly happened the night 100 years ago when the superliner hit an iceberg, plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic and became a legend.

Marks on the muddy ocean bottom suggest, for instance, that the stern rotated like a helicopter blade as the ship sank, rather than plunging straight down, researchers told the Associated Press this week.

An expedition team used sonar imaging and more than 100,000 photos taken from underwater robots to create the map, which shows where hundreds of objects and pieces of the presumed-unsinkable vessel landed after the ship struck an iceberg, killing more than 1,500 people.

Explorers of the Titanic - which sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City - have known for more than 25 years where the bow and stern landed, but previous maps of the floor around the wreckage were incomplete, said Parks Stephenson, a Titanic historian who consulted on the 2010 expedition. Studying the site with old maps was like trying to navigate a dark room with a weak flashlight.

"With the sonar map, it's like suddenly the entire room lit up and you can go from room to room with a magnifying glass and document it," he said. "Nothing like this has ever been done for the Titanic site."

The mapping took place in the summer of 2010 during an expedition to the Titanic led by RMS Titanic Inc., the legal custodian of the wreck, along with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Mass., and the Waitt Institute of La Jolla, Calif.

CALIFORNIA

Cannon death suspect has criminal history

SAN DIEGO | A man suspected of igniting a homemade cannon that exploded and killed his live-in girlfriend had a criminal history that included violence against the woman, records show.

Two years ago, suspect Richard Fox, 39, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of committing battery against girlfriend Jeanette Ogara in 2006, the newspaper U-T San Diego reported, citing court records.

Mr. Fox was placed on probation and ordered to complete a 52-week domestic-violence recovery program. The probation expired in January.

He also served at least three prison sentences in the 1990s for auto theft and weapons possession convictions.

Mr. Fox was expected to be charged with willfully and maliciously exploding a destructive device, causing death, said Steve Walker, a spokesman for the San Diego County district attorney's office.

Mr. Fox remained jailed pending arraignment, and it was not immediately clear whether he had obtained an attorney.

The handyman was arrested after the makeshift cannon went off just after midnight. He may have been drinking when he lit the fuse to a 21-inch-long, 2-inch-thick steel pipe that he had stuck into the ground outside his home, authorities said.

The tube was packed with powder taken from fireworks and some kind of projectile.

Ogara, 38, was struck in the chest by shrapnel that tore into the couple's trailer home in Potrero, a tiny rural community near the Mexican border.

Investigators did not immediately determine whether the death was accidental or may have involved foul play, authorities have said.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports