RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the repercussions for BP is that lawsuits are piling up, and today a panel of federal judges will consider which court should handle them.

This comes as the man overseeing BP's huge compensation fund, Ken Feinberg, is trying to persuade Gulf residents to take a settlement and avoid going to court.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, many in the Gulf say it's too early to calculate their damages.

TOVIA SMITH: Ask Darren Frickey how much this oil spill has already cost him and the answer is as simple as it is sad. He's gone from catching $5,000 worth of shrimp a week in Louisiana's bayous to none at all.

Mr. DARREN FRICKEY (Shrimper): This is the boxes that I keep the shrimp iced up in.

SMITH: But peering down at the containers on his boat that have been empty now for months, Frickey says the hard part is trying to guess when or if he'll ever fill them up again.

Mr. FRICKEY: I mean, it's just frustrating. We're waiting on the biologists, somebody to let us know. So I'm in between a rock and hardship right now.

SMITH: That's because even biologists might be years away from saying when fishing will get back to normal. But in order to get a final settlement from BP, Frickey and his wife, Donna, have to figure out now what their total losses are, and then promise not to sue for more.

Ms. DONNA FRICKEY: I couldn't put a price on it because I really don't know how long it would be - if it'd be a year, two years, 20 years, you know?

Mr. FRICKEY: It's a roll of dice and might not be in your favor.

Ms. FRICKEY: Page one (unintelligible) two, three, four...

SMITH: Back home, the Frickeys are collecting old fishing receipts and talking to their lawyer, Soren Gisleson, about suing instead of settling. Like many, they've been able to get small interim payouts from BP without waiving their right to sue. But now, Gisleson says, it's unfair to ask anyone to make a final settlement before they understand all of their damages.

Mr. SOREN GISLESON (Attorney): So you're putting them in a position where they're probably going to have to file a lawsuit; otherwise they lose.

SMITH: In the case of the 9/11, compensation czar Ken Feinberg was able to persuade most victims to take his settlement by arguing it was faster and surer, for example, than suing the terrorists. But in the Gulf, hundreds have already sued BP, including a class action by Louisiana restaurants.

Attorney Robert Wiygul says the pressure to settle may ultimately backfire.

Mr. ROBERT WIYGUL (Attorney): I'm afraid that that approach is going to drive people into court and into litigation instead of keep them out of it.

SMITH: Ken Feinberg was grilled on the issue by Congress last week and insisted his estimates will be generous. But ultimately, he says, his offers are just that.

Mr. KEN FEINBERG (Compensation Czar): We've done our best. We've talked to the experts. If you believe that that check is insufficient, don't accept it. You can go about your business. You can go litigate. You can do whatever else you want. But it is a generous check that accurately reflects the likely long-term damage - and then some.

SMITH: Another concern is the possibility of long-term health effects from the oil and the cleanup. In the case of 9/11, rescue workers who only discovered their illnesses years after the fact had to ask Congress to reopen the compensation fund. Members implored Feinberg to leave the door open to those kinds of claims from the Gulf. Feinberg called the scenario a horror and said he'd ponder it.

Mr. FEINBERG: Right now I would say it's a tough call. You've given me a hypothetical which I hadn't thought of. I was thinking you would...

SMITH: For its part, BP has repeatedly promised it would cover all legitimate claims - even late ones. But folks like Darren and Donna Frickey say their own cash problems are making it hard to wait and they may have no choice but to accept whatever Ken Feinberg offers.

Mr. FRICKEY: We have monthly notes just like everyone in the world, and if they don't help me now, I might lose my house, my truck. I mean, we're in a predicament."

Ms. FRICKEY: We'd lose everything we got.

SMITH: Opting to settle rather than sue may also mean giving up something else. Frickey has a lot of time these days to watch BP on TV defending their big executive bonuses and tax breaks. It'd be nice, he says, to get them into court and watch them squirm a little in the hot seat.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, New Orleans.

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