Chevron refinery fire sets off money grab

Aug, 10, 2012

By Joseph Perkins

Well, that didn’t take long. No sooner did Chevron douse the fire this week at its Richmond oil refinery before a couple thousand folks, claiming some sort of personal injury or another, started looking for a way to get paid.

More than a thousand “victims” of the Richmond fire, complaining of coughs, nausea, scratchy throats and even “psychological trauma,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, somehow managed to make it to the law office of Nick Haney, despite their supposed debilitating ailments.

Why Haney? Because the all-too-opportunistic Richmond trial lawyer placed two large signs in his office windows urging prospective plaintiffs, “File Chevron Claims Here.” So many folks qued up outside his office he sent five of his assistants out into the streets to handle paperwork.

Of course, the fire at the Chevron refinery’s crude distillation unit (CDU) was not quite the public health catastrophe it was made out be in some news accounts.

While there were scary reports of “toxic fumes,” of public warnings issued to residents of Richmond and neighboring cities to stay indoors, of some 1,700 people visiting emergency rooms (but almost none actually admitted to the hospital, the San Francisco Chronicle noted), the Bay Area Air Quality Management District determined that air quality was safe following the Richmond fire.

It wasn’t Chernobyl, where the 1986 meltdown of the Soviet nuclear plant killed as many as 50. It wasn’t Bhopal, where a 1984 gas leak at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary caused the deaths of 4,000 to 8,000 thousands (according to who’s counting).

It wasn’t even Marin County, where South San Francisco construction company JMB damaged a sewage line in 2010, spilling 2.5 million gallons of wastewater. No one died. But it sure did smell pretty foul.

So why, then, skeptics ask, did Chevron set up shop this week in a downtown Richmond storefront to handle the 1,000 or so people complaining of fire-related ailments who contacted the San Ramon company directly?

Because Chevron hoped to head off Haney and other contingency-fee lawyers who view  the Richmond refinery fire as an opening to round up potential plaintiffs with which to extort a payout from Chevron.

Indeed, in no other state does a deep-pocket corporation like Chevron face a greater risk of being hit with a class action lawsuit than here in the Golden State. It is one the biggest reasons why corporate CEOs consider California one of the worst states in the country in which to do business.

In 2010, to cite an especially disquieting example, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury returned an astronomical $208.8 million judgment against CertainTeed Corporation, a manufacturer of building materials.

The plaintiff in the case said her husband worked at the L.A. Department of Water for 20 years cutting pipe made by CertainTeed that contained asbestos. Her claim was that, by washing his clothes, she became ill from indirect exposure to asbestos fibers. Never mind that hubby, himself, remains very much alive and well after years of direct exposure

Now if an L.A. jury saw fit to award a single plaintiff more than $200 million on a rather questionable claim, what might a jury in the no less liberal San Francisco-EastBay award 1,000 plaintiffs?

That’s why Chevron just might be willing offer a few hundred bucks to those who show up at itsRichmondstorefront claiming fire-related medical expenses.

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