Jury deliberates oil field ruling for second day

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Do plaintiffs in an oil field pollution trial deservecompensation for property damage and for living with the “invisibledangers” of radiation, or are their attorneys simply trying to winthem the “Lincoln County Lottery”?

A seven-woman, five-man jury continued to ponder those questionstoday as their deliberations in the trial involving four LincolnCounty families and Chevron Oil Company entered a second day. Inthe civil trial, nine of the 12 jurors must agree on a verdict.

In closing arguments Tuesday, plaintiffs’ lead attorney JeffThompson painted Chevron as a company that operated the BrookhavenOil Field in a negligent and “outrageous manner” for decades. Hesaid the company put profits first and then put up delays anddenials when their activities were questioned.

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“Clearly, this is the most important case in the world to thesepeople,” Thompson said as he pointed to plaintiffs Leland and HelenSmith, Nathan and Mary Carter, Gene C. “Moochie” and Margaret Brittand Hal Ray and Doris Case Owens. “It is their only chance to holdChevron accountable.”

Chevron attorneys, however, said it would be a “gross injustice”for the company to have to pay for property that is good andvaluable, as evidenced by the active market for theinvestment-quality land in the oil field.

“The property has been cleaned up, and it’s valuable,” saidChevron attorney Bobby Meadows.

Meadows said the plaintiffs’ attorneys were pursuing a casebased on “scare, speculation and innuendo.” While talking aboutChevron’s plan to clean up the property after oil productionactivities, he and fellow attorney Bob Allen said state and federalagencies had received no complaints, and the plaintiffs onlypursued the case after an attorney contacted them in 1993.

“All these folks know is what their lawyers have told them inthis case,” Allen said.

Thompson objected when Allen, taking issue with requestedcompensation in the case, referred to purpose of the trial as the”Lincoln County Lottery.”

“I thought I’d get a rise,” Allen quipped after Judge KeithStarrett overruled the objection.

The plaintiffs own almost 240 acres in the oil field. The valueof that property was placed at over $701,000.

In his earlier closing arguments, Thompson asked the jury togive the plaintiffs the value of the land plus timber value andcompensation for emotional distress and mental anguish. Prior tojury instructions and closing argument, Starrett reversed anearlier ruling and allowed the plaintiffs to seek compensation formental anguish.

For that, Thompson said he thought $5,000 an acre was notunreasonable for most of the plaintiffs. For the Carters, whose12.5 acres was the smallest amount the land but required thebiggest clean up, Thompson asked for $25,000 an acre.

Thompson said the plaintiffs had an emotional attachment totheir land. Citing testimony from some of the property owners, hesaid they had experienced more than mere discomfort, but real painover their situations.

“I think their emotions were palpable,” Thompson said.

Thompson also attacked the adequacy of Chevron’s remediationplan and highlighted letters from the company to its contractorsregarding radiation in the field. He said that information wasnever disclosed to the property owners.

“Everybody knew it except for the people living out there,”Thompson said in a spirited rebuttal to Allen’s “lottery”comment.

Even after filing the lawsuits, Meadows said the property ownersdid not change the way they were living on the property. He saidtheir actions were inconsistent with their concerns.

Meadows said one property owner signed an oil and gas lease fora relative, and another owner sold two acres of land to a relative.He said local banks have loaned money on other property in thefield, and the plaintiffs had received several offers to sell theirproperty.

Meadows also pointed out that the oil field activities involveonly a few acres of each of the plaintiffs’ properties.Furthermore, he said it would be preposterous for Chevron to go tothe time and expense of a clean up and leave a problem on theproperty.

“There has been no diminution in value of the land, and theclean up assures that,” Meadows said.

Following closing arguments, jurors began deliberations around2:30 p.m. At one point, they had a question about a juryinstruction, but court officials were prohibited from providingmore explanation.

After about three hours, the jury was dismissed for the day andtold to return at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.