FORT MYERS -
This week, oil giant BP learned they will have to pay $4 billion in criminal penalties relating to the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. The payouts do not stop there and attorneys are spreading the word to potential clients.
"Southwest Florida is only now waking up and realizing that their businesses may have viable claims to pursue," said Frank Aloia Jr.
The Fort Myers lawyer calls this a "class-action settlement on steroids."
Since June of 2012, Florida residents have been on the receiving end of more than $330 million in payouts from the settlement.
NBC2's Chad Oliver tracked down the answer to the Good Question: Are you eligible to claim money from the BP settlement?
Southwest Florida has three settlement zones. Depending on where an applicant lives and/or does business determines what they must prove.
The closer to the coast, places like Sanibel, Captiva or Boca Grande - the easier the path to payment.
The key is proving income went down because of lost business following the oil spill.
Oil never washed up on Lee County Beaches following the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Yet the pollution perception convinced the Warner family from Kansas City to cancel their Florida vacation three years ago.
"We just kind of thought it was going to be dirty, and concerned about the cleanup. We just thought, not a good time to visit," said Dianne Warner while taking in the view from Lighthouse Beach on Sanibel.
Miles away from the beach in downtown Fort Myers, Sara Barnhart is getting back what she lost while serving tables at United Cafe.
"I think BP got a piece of everybody," said Barnhart as she remembered the months following the spill. "The season was still busier than the summer, but it wasn't as busy as a season should be."
She hired an attorney to file a BP claim on her behalf and the 33-year old was recently notified she can expect $14,000 from the settlement.
"My attorney was like is that going to be okay, and I was like heck yeah," remembered Barnhart.
She had to turn-in pay history and several years of W2 forms. Barnhart's attorney is quick to point out since the deadline to file is April of 2014, there's still plenty of time to get in on this settlement.
"BP is legally obligated to pay every single viable claim no matter the total amount they end up paying," said Aloia.
Contrary to popular thought, claimants do not have to do business on a beach to cash in.
"Visitors didn't come. They didn't buy. They didn't engage a dry cleaner. They didn't go to a restaurant. They didn't hire the contractor. They didn't take a taxi from the airport," said Aloia as he explained the far-reaching impact of the oil spill.
Businesses need to provide paperwork showing monthly profit & loss statements or they need to provide monthly sales tax returns.
Chad Oliver went through documents from the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center to learn how many people from southwest Florida's six county region are in on this class-action settlement.
Since the settlement was reached in the summer of 2012, there have been around 5,400 claims filed from Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry, Glades, and Desoto Counties.
Five hundred and forty have been approved for payments totaling more than $34 million.
The vast majority of those denied were labeled "incomplete" - often meaning the applicant didn't provide the necessary documents.
Sara Barnhart's financials fit the necessary formula for payout. "It [income] went down and then went back up after things started getting better," said Barnhart.
It led to an unexpected payday for this Lee County mother of two.
She said "I just figured I would give it a shot and if they saw that they owed me some money they would."
While Sara was successful using an attorney, applicants do not have to go through a law firm to file a claim.