By Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke Island residents, business owners and vacationers who did not file a claim last year for income loss compensation during the week-long power outage may still do so.
Steve Lacy, an attorney from New Bern, was on Ocracoke Wednesday to explain the recent court-approved settlement with the PCL Constructors, whose work crews severed the main power line to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands last summer in the heart of the vacation season.
Lacy and co-counsel Robert Zaytoun, a Raleigh attorney, are among several attorneys who filed a class-action lawsuit last year on behalf of those economically affected by the outage on Ocracoke and Hatteras islands.
U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever III consolidated the lawsuits into one class-action in October and on May 2 approved that PCL would pay $10.35 million for the claimants.
Now, everyone who was on the island during the power outage is in the “class” and can file a claim.
Although islanders last year negotiated directly with Crawford & Co., an insurance adjuster hired by PCL, to receive compensation for lost income, those islanders may or may not have received all they asked for because Crawford’s job then was to negotiate, Lacy told the 15 islanders who attended.
But things are different now and Crawford now works under contract with the attorneys.
“The lawyers have taken over the process and Crawford’s new marching orders are just to receive and verify claims and to pay the claims “dollar for dollar,” he said.
“We went down there and met with them and made sure all the claims they were holding will be paid according to the class-action settlement and not according to any criteria that Crawford may have used to adjust claims before the settlement,” Zaytoun said in a subsequent interview. “PCL is out of the picture in directing Crawford on how to settle claims. We feel this will be financially advantageous to class claimants who declined to take up Crawford’s offer on behalf of PCL for quick compensation.”
Anyone who submitted a claim should have received a notice that their claim was received, he said.
Lacy said that they saw about 160 claims on file that had not been paid but since then, about 123 have been processed.
Two islanders at Wednesday’s meeting noted that they had heard nothing about their claims presumably still pending.
Lacy said any claimant who submitted a claim and hasn’t heard anything should call Crawford’s claims number at 1-877-346-0300.
However, anyone who signed a release and took Crawford’s offer (even though it may have been less than their actual loss) may not reapply for any additional funds.
But businesses who did not submit a claim last year may do so now with full documentation and receive all they lost, he said, and they can even include “non-economic” losses stemming from stress related to the power outage.
“If you called the doctor for physical symptoms,” he said.
Claimants also can submit for “residual losses” from the power outage aftermath. This was not available when PCL set up its claims process last year, but these claims will require back-up documentation.
“Crawford was only interested in the eight-day window (when the power was off),” Lacy said. “Everyone on the island was booked to capacity.”
But owing to the uncertainty of the restoration, many vacationers canceled their planned trips in the weeks beyond Aug 3 after full power came back.
The power outage occurred last July 27 when PCL crews severed power cables while working on the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge replacement project, leaving the Hatteras and Ocracoke islands without the main power source.
A state of emergency ordered by Gov. Roy Cooper and Hyde and Dare counties ordered mandatory evacuations of all visitors on both islands. Although the islands were powered with temporary generators to provide enough energy for residents, those generators couldn’t accommodate the increased power needs for visitors.
Businesses that do not want to submit detailed documentation may still submit claims and receive a lump sum of up to $2,500 by showing they were in business last year with a valid tax ID number.
“Just submit for $2,500,” he said. “We won’t look behind.”
Claims will be paid out as they come in, Lacy said.
“This proves that a lot of small people can band together and bring about a resolution with a large corporation,” Zaytoun said about the settlement. “What’s bad about that?”
According to the court order, $8,100,000 of the settlement fund will be allocated to the business class, and $2,250,000 of the fund will be allocated to the rental/vacationer class and the resident class.
The court set a fixed amount for attorney’s fees.
“These fees will not be deducted from the claimants’ payments,” Lacy said.
According to the order, the lawyers’ fees are “not to exceed $3,415,500 (33 percent of the settlement fund), as well as costs not to exceed $100,000. Class counsel also will request a service award payment of $2,500 for each of the class representatives. The aggregate service award payments will not exceed $72,500.”
The proposed settlement class consists of approximately 300 businesses, 475 to 1,500 vacation rental properties, and 1,000 residential properties, the order says.
Lacy also said the lawyers will send out notices via the mail to everyone they can find.
“There’s a good possibility we can pay all these claims and still have money left over,” Lacy said.
If that happens, remaining funds could be donated to the communities of Ocracoke and Hatteras “for the collective good,” subject to court approval.
But that won’t be known until after Oct. 15, which is the deadline for submitting all claims.
Anyone who has questions about the process can call him at his office at 252-670-9925.
Claim forms for the four classes—residents, vacationers, vacation property owners and business owners—are available at the Ocracoke Community Library, until the website www.obxsettlement.com is updated with the forms, which Lacy said may be Monday.
Now live, the website currently informational only though contains a link to the court-order approving the settlement.
The deadline for claims submission is Oct. 15. The deadline for class members to object to the terms of the settlement is July 31, and the deadline for opting out of the class and filing one’s own lawsuit is no later than 30 days from July 3.