Jury gets oil field case

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, November 27, 2001

A jury was expected to begin deliberations today in an oil fieldproperty damage trial involving four Lincoln County families andChevron Oil Company.

The defendants rested their case Monday afternoon followingtestimony from a property value appraiser. The plaintiffs thenrested without calling any rebuttal witnesses.

“Tomorrow it’ll be in the jury’s hands,” said the plaintiffs’lead attorney Jeff Thompson.

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Thompson and others represent Brookhaven Oil Field propertyowners Leland and Helen Smith, Nathan and Mary Carter, Gene C.”Moochie” and Margaret Britt and Hal Ray and Doris Case Owens.

The plaintiffs contend that decades of oil exploration andproduction activity damaged their property and left harmfulradiation in the field. Chevron asserts that the property has notlost any value and that whatever radiation there is in the fielddoes not exceed environmental standards.

Testimony in the trial, now in its third week, ended around 3p.m. Jurors were then dismissed for the day and told to returnTuesday at 9 a.m.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to get jury instructions, hearclosing arguments and begin deliberations today,” Judge KeithStarrett said Monday.

Starrett again warned jurors to not discuss the trial withanyone until deliberations begin.

Sixteen jurors were empaneled for the trial, but only 12 willdeliberate. While they will not be involved in deliberations,Starrett said he will “stringently” instruct the four alternates tonot talk about the case until a decision is reached.

“I think the jury has been very conscientious about that andhave no reason to think it won’t continue,” said Starrett, addingthat jurors have been punctual and attentive throughout thetrial.

In a jury-related matter, jurors have been allowed to take notesduring the trial but state law forbids use of notes duringdeliberations. While expressing some disagreement with the law,Starrett said he would allow time for jurors to review their notesbefore they start deliberations.

“Jurors cannot take their notebooks with them,” the judgesaid.

In other trial activity, the defendant appeared to score a minorvictory when Starrett sustained its motion for a directed verdictregarding the plaintiffs’ claims of mental anguish. The actionmeans the jury would not be instructed to consider mental anguishaspects of the case.

The defendant’s attorneys argued that the plaintiffs did notprove “demonstrable harm” related to personal injury as well asother aspects of the claim. Starrett cited testimony from theproperty owners regarding anger and lack of trust in making hisdecision.

“The plaintiffs have not met the burden of demonstrable harm,”the judge said.

However, citing case law on property damage issues, theplaintiffs’ attorneys argued they should be allowed to pursue thatissue.

There was also considerable discussion about Chevron’s earlierstipulation to accept liability for the condition of theplaintiffs’ property and what effect that would have on theplaintiffs’ claims. Starrett was meeting with attorneys laterMonday to review court transcripts of the stipulation agreementbefore making a final ruling on that and other jury instructionissues.