Almost five years after the city of Richmond filed a lawsuit against Chevron for damages in response to the massive 2012 fire at the oil company’s local refinery, the suit is finally poised to move forward to the trial phase.
On February 21, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt announced through his “E-Forum” newsletter that a jury trial could start as early as the following week. The suit’s case file shows that a date for the trial had been set for February 26 at the Contra Costa Superior Courthouse in Martinez, but a subsequent order by Judge Barry Goode has given both sides until March 15 to answer questions about motions they’ve filed to prevent certain evidence from being presented.
Among these motions, Richmond’s lawyers have asked the court to exclude the testimony of Butt and former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who were both part of the city council when the decision to sue was made. Chevron’s attorneys are attempting to prevent certain evidence from the city’s expert witnesses from being presented.
The updated case timeline follows Goode’s decision on February 22 to grant two of Chevron’s motions to eliminate claims against it by the city. He ruled that Richmond does not have the legal standing to sue for lost property tax revenue as a result of the reduction in value of the refinery following the fire. He also dismissed a claim that Chevron was liable for damages suffered by the city because it operates an “ultrahazardous activity,” stating that the refinery doesn’t meet this standard under California law.
In his E-Forum message, Butt claimed that Goode’s ruling essentially took responsibility away from the company. “In short, Chevron has no duty to protect the city from loss of property tax revenue from Chevron’s own property due to a fire at the refinery,” he wrote.
A third Chevron motion to eliminate multiple claims of public and private nuisance was denied by the judge. The claims argue that the company’s failure to exercise care in its operations interfered with the city’s and the public’s ability to freely use and enjoy land near the refinery. According to court documents, the company’s motion was denied because during oral arguments, Chevron’s lawyers tried to argue with information that wasn’t submitted in writing.
When asked to comment on the judge’s decisions, Chevron spokeswoman Leah Casey wrote in an email statement that the company is “pleased that the court’s ruling on some legal matters narrows the case.”
In response, City Councilmember Melvin Willis criticized Chevron for how it has handled its operation. “I think it is beneficial to [Chevron] if the case is more narrow because they don’t have to feel accountable,” he said. “But, the fact remains, whether the case is more narrow or not, there were a lot of people in this city who faced a huge impact because they were negligent and they were not being responsible in making sure that refinery was operating safely.”
This ongoing legal battle is in response to the August, 2012, blaze that ignited in a crude oil distillation unit, filling the Richmond skyline with a thick plume of black smoke. Six employees were injured in the fire and over 15,000 residents sought medical treatment for respiratory issues related to the incident.
In the aftermath of the fire, Chevron was ordered to pay $2 million in fines and pleaded no contest to six charges filed against it by the California Attorney General’s Office and the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office.
Last July, Chevron and the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health reached a settlement requiring the company spend around $20 million in equipment and safety upgrades.
Chevron has also faced over 20,000 legal claims from local residents, resulting in multiple payouts totaling over $10 million.
According to Butt, the Richmond City Council is scheduled to receive an update on the status of the lawsuit from Richmond City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller and outside legal counsel firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in the next few weeks.
In a phone interview this week, Butt said the city had made a settlement offer to Chevron several weeks ago, but to the best of his knowledge, hadn’t received a response.
Willis said he hopes for a resolution as quickly as possible, so any money received can be invested into the community. He also made it clear that the effects of this lawsuit will go beyond just revenue.
“It’s absolutely, 100 percent, important, because the city of Richmond was the victim of a bad next door neighbor that chose their profits and operations over the safety of the people,” he said.