Articles Posted in Environmental Concerns

In April 2010, an offshore drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers died and crude oil from the well spilled into the Gulf for months after the accident. The result was a mass of litigation involving multiple defendants. In order to deal with the extensive facts and individuals involved in this case, like many other cases, the parties can appeal just one issue of the case if the lower court denies or grants a judgment on that particular issue.

Normally, a decision must be a final one in order to be appealed. That generally means that the case has concluded and the lower court has rendered a judgment. That way, the appeals court considers all of the facts involved, but can still allow the lower court to do most of the fact analysis. However, there are some occasions where an appeal on just one issue is allowed. This is known as an interlocutory appeal, and it falls under the collateral order doctrine. The collateral order doctrine assumes that some decisions are “final in effect although they do not dispose of the litigation.”

In order to use the collateral order doctrine, the lower court must have 1) conclusively determined the disputed question, 2) resolved an important issue that is completely separate from the final decision in the case, and 3) the issue must also be effectively unreviewable on appeal in a final judgment. “Effectively unreviewable” means that the court of appeals will have no way to review the decision of the lower court once the lower court makes a decision on this particular issue. Generally, if the decision could be appealed in some other way than the interlocutory appeal, then the court will not use the interlocutory appeal.

In the oil spill case, parties assumed that one worker in particular held a great deal of information because he was the BP Well Site Leader on duty aboard the rig at the time of the accident. However, the Site Leader had an undisclosed medical condition that prohibited him from testifying or answering written questions. The Site Leader explained his medical condition to the judge on two separate occasions, but did not disclose the information to the parties.

Since the parties believed that he was such a valuable witness, they really wanted to obtain information from him. As such, another judge ordered an independent doctor to examine him and ordered the Site Leader to produce his medical records to the independent doctor. The Site Leader protested because he was concerned about sharing his personal information. This order is a discovery decision, and discovery decisions are appealable after the final decision of the court based on the use of inadmissible evidence.

One of the Site Leader’s major arguments, however, was that releasing his personal medical information would cause a great deal of harm to him personally, and there is no method on appeal to reverse that type of harm. Nonetheless, the court determined that district courts can “burden litigants in ways that are only imperfectly reparable by appellate reversal of the final district court judgment.” Therefore, even though there may be harm that cannot be reversed for the Site Leader, the court will still allow the medical information to come in because the final verdict could change on appeal if the information is removed later. To use another example, the court explains that even if the information is privileged, that does not make it appropriate for an interlocutory appeal.

The court only briefly considered the rights of the Site Leader and his concern about protecting his personal information. In that discussion, they explain that they weighed the costs of sharing his information with the benefits of having his testimony at trial and determined that the benefits outweighed the costs.

As result, the court determined that it could not use the collateral order doctrine and that the interlocutory appeal was inappropriate. Therefore, the court dismissed the appeal and allowed the bulk of the case to continue in the lower court.

Civil procedure issues can be a delicate balance between protecting the case and protecting the individuals involved in the case.

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La. R.S. 30:29 (“Act 312”) was in enacted in 2006 and became effective in June of that year. Act 312 provides a procedure for the remediation of oil field sites as well as oil exploration and production sites. Generally, remediation is “the action of remedying something, in particular of reversing or stopping environmental change.” Before the Louisiana legislature enacted Act 312, most remediation requirements were through private party contracts; therefore, Act 312 did not change the normal trial procedures established by the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure.

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently discussed Act 312 at length, explaining what it did change, in a case involving the Vermilion Parish School Board. The Court explained that Act 312 was enacted because of serious concerns with the state of the land and ground water after an area was used for oil exploration and production. Parties would use the land and ground water under a mineral lease for several years, and leave the property in terrible shape by the time that they were done. Mineral leases allow the parties to contract for only the minerals or the potential oil that is located on that property. The party with the mineral lease, then, does not rent the entire property, but just the ability to find minerals or oil within or upon that property.

Before Act 312, parties could still sue if one party left the land in terrible shape. Occasionally, however, it does not make sense economically to force a party to fix the land they damaged. Instead, the renting party would have to give the “landlord” the difference between the value of the land when they received it and the value of the land when it was returned after the lease, under a tort law theory. However, the person who owned the land, the “landlord,” was not required to use the funds to fix damage done to the land. As a result, property that had serious environmental problems often went without remediation because the landlord was not required to fix it. This creates health and safety concerns for the general public.

In January, the Louisiana Supreme Court considered an appeal from the Vermilion Parish School Board. The appeal centered on environmental damage to land that was subject to a mineral lease. The mineral lease allowed those leasing the land to look for and remove any mineral, including oil, that they found on the land. However, once they did this, they left the land in a state that was environmentally hazardous.

Louisiana has special procedures for dealing with restoring land so that we do not harm the environment, specifically when removing oil. The remediation of the land, this restoring process, was one of the major issues in the Vermilion Parish case. The defendants included Union Oil Company of California, Union Exploration Partners, Carrollton Resources, LLC, Chevron USA, Inc., and Chevron Midcontinent, L.P.

The Court faced two major issues in this case. The first was whether the parties could receive damages in excess of the amount it would take to restore the property, thereby correcting the environmental damage. The Court determined that the language of the legislation (La. R.S. 30:29) was clear and that the parties could receive a larger amount.

Under Louisiana law, when a case arises where a party is required to correct an environmental wrong, the funds are deposited into the court’s registry. The court will then disperse the funds to repair the land. This is a relatively new development because this act was put into effect in 2006. The legislature was concerned that parties who received funds to help correct the damage done to their land would not use it for that purpose if they were not so required. Leaving property that is damaged could create serious issues for the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding population.

The legislation focuses on the role of the fact finder in determining whether there was environmental damage, and how much that environmental damage will cost to fix. As such, the court determined that the case should continue so that the fact finder could make those determinations.

The second issue was whether Chevron should be dismissed from the case. According to the facts, Union Oil had the mineral lease first, but Chevron subsequently acquired Union Oil and all of their assets, including the lease. As such, Chevron became responsible for any environmental damage that Union Oil may have caused. Chevron admitted responsibility initially, but then denied that they should be legally responsible later.

Chevron explained that while Chevron Corp. owns both Chevron USA and Union Oil Company of California, the two sections do not overlap. That is, Union Oil had $18 billion in assets, and should they be found liable for environmental damage, the amount that they will pay will come from their assets and not Chevron’s. Chevron explained that those assets were never transferred out of Union Oil, so Union Oil remained somewhat independent even after Chevron acquired them.

Therefore, Chevron argued that Chevron USA should be removed from the case so that those assets are not adversely affected. Nonetheless, Frank Soler, the senior liaison in the subsidiary governance unit of the corporate governance department for Chevron Corp. admitted that Union Oil does not have any employees and there may be service agreements between the two sections for day-to-day activities.

The Plaintiffs in the case were only allowed to discover a very limited amount of information from Chevron regarding this case. The court restricted the information until they determined whether or not Chevron should remain in the case a defendant. As such, many facts remained unknown regarding the relationship between Chevron and Union Oil. Therefore, the court determined that Plaintiffs should be allowed to gather more information and the case should continue.

Both of these issues failed the summary judgment test. The test is whether there is an absence of material facts in the case. If there is such an absence, then the court will only determine the questions of law and one side will receive a summary judgment. In this case, however, the court determined that there may be facts in dispute because they did not have enough information; therefore, the case continued.

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