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Tampa Bay cities didn't get what they sought in oil spill claims

Jackie Kovila?ritch said St. Petersburg sought to pre?serve claims.
Jackie Kovila?ritch said St. Petersburg sought to pre?serve claims.
Published Jul. 27, 2015

The city of St. Petersburg demanded nearly $60 million to settle its lawsuit over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and is in line to get $8 million.

Tampa wanted about $60 million and is set to land $27.4 million.

And Clearwater, which actually has a beach on the Gulf of Mexico, sought $20 million and will get roughly the same amount as St. Petersburg.

Disparities among the settlement amounts that Tampa Bay's elected officials have approved in recent days to end their claims against BP and other defendants raise the question: How were they calculated?

Details are scarce because the federal judge presiding over the case, Sally Shushan, has issued a gag order over settlement discussions. Government officials and their attorneys discussed the amounts behind closed doors, emerging only to hold a public vote. They have declined to comment on details until the order is lifted.

But some things we do know.

First, the amounts that the governments demanded in their lawsuits had no bearing on the proposed settlements (which must still be approved by the court and the defendants). The governments used a variety of data and estimates to show how the spill took a toll on their coffers, so their demands varied wildly. The claims relied mainly on revenue lost because of tourists who stayed away and the potential for future damages from oil that still lurks in the gulf.

The court, however, appointed independent panels to calculate proposed settlement awards. Formulas included some of the same categories cited by governments, such as lost sales tax and tourist tax revenue. Other categories included in the plaintiff claims were left out.

There is a legal advantage to taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.

St. Petersburg, for example, aimed to include as many elements as possible to preserve the right to potential future claims, said Jackie Kovilaritch, the chief assistant city attorney.

"I think the amount (the city) sought reflected the broad-sweeping nature of the claim," Kovilaritch said.

That doesn't mean that local governments officials and their lawyers didn't think they could make a case for their claims if they wound up in front of a jury, but that was a gamble few were willing to make. Of the 13 Tampa Bay governments that submitted a claim, only two — St. Pete Beach and neighboring Treasure Island — have voted to reject the proposals.

"Recalling the Exxon Valdez experience of 20-plus years of litigation, I am quite confident that resolution at this time, rather than years out, was the best of outcomes," said Steve Yerrid, the Tampa attorney who handled the city of Tampa's claim.

Many coastal towns and cities such as Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Shores, North Redington Beach, Redington Beach and Redington Shores did not file lawsuits. Officials in many, if not all, of these small residential communities looked at the numbers and didn't find a basis for a claim because they lack a robust tourist economy.

Redington Beach, a town of about 1,500 people, has no hotels at all, said Town Manager Melissa Clarke.

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"Our whole town is residential, not commercial, so there was no effect on us," Clarke said.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.