Pipeline Fights Class Certification in California Oil Spill Suit

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A company responsible for an oil spill that dumped more than 123,000 gallons of crude oil off the California coast in 2015 asked a judge Monday to decertify a federal class action brought by beachfront property owners and business owners seeking damages from the environmental disaster.

On May 19, 2015, thousands of gallons of crude oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean along the Gaviota Coast north of Santa Barbara. The ruptured pipeline, owned by Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline, spewed oil through a storm drain under Highway 101 and into the ocean for several hours.

The disaster forced the closure of multiple state marine conservation areas and public beaches as well as fishing and shellfish businesses.

Plaintiffs in the ensuing class action include property owners, seafood suppliers, a petrol company that suffered lost wages and an international trading company that were impacted by the disaster. They claim Plains All American Pipeline should have had a shut-off valve on its 10-mile long, 24-inch wide pipeline.

Crude oil washes up on Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, Calif. in 2015. (By Zackmann08Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

On Monday, attorneys for Plains All American Pipeline argued an analysis by class witness Igor Mezić, a University of California, Santa Barbara, professor, on the dispersion of crude oil is inaccurate. Mezić’s analysis involves the amount of oil that washed ashore after the disaster, what areas it covered and where it became submerged on the ocean floor.

The pipeline’s attorney Daniel Levin with Munger Tolles Olson called Mezić’s findings “a “methodological failure” because he didn’t include important data points in his analysis, like the amount of oil that was cleaned up from specific sites.

But class attorney Leila Noel with Cappello Noel said Mezić’s formula was peer-reviewed and while some sites may have been cleaned, oil residues remained.

The defense seeks to decertify the class because the amount of oil found on the affected properties varies from property owner to property owner, and the case should therefore be handled individually rather than as a class action.

Levin said there are multiple variables related to lessees and owners, those with property easement that goes to the beach from further inland and other individualized claims for damages from each class member.

“You can’t do it with a class,” Levin told U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez.

For the plaintiffs, Robert Nelson with Lieff Cabraser Heimann Bernstein said the class has already been narrowed down once before by Gutierrez to deal with the common questions. Nelson said the class attorneys have expert analysis on where the oil went and who was affected.

Nelson also noted conventional use of the beaches was affected – a wrongful occupation and therefore a cost to the property owners.

“We don’t claim the entire value was lost,” said Nelson, adding the class seeks damages that can be attributed to the spill which could be determined by a jury.

Nelson said “thousands of people were impacted” and there could be a mechanism to deal with the variables in the class.

“This can’t be the only environmental case that cannot be certified,” said Nelson.

Gutierrez took the arguments under submission and said he would issue his ruling later this week.

In September 2018, a Santa Barbara jury found Plains All American Pipeline criminally liable for the disaster in a lawsuit brought by the state of California. The jury faulted the company for not properly maintaining its pipeline and for the deaths of marine life and sea birds in the disaster.

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