Santa Maria Jury Hammers Chevron with $63 Million Verdict

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Oil Company Waited 41 Years to Clean Up ‘Hazardous Cesspool’

Source of this article, the Santa Barbara Independent, June 14, 2023

Last week, a Santa Maria jury found Unocal (a k a Union Oil) — and its parent company, Chevron — reprehensibly negligent for waiting 41 years to clean up a benzene-laden underground waste sump in what’s now a Santa Maria residential neighborhood and awarded $63 million in damages. Kevin Wright, who developed terminal blood cancer years after building his dream house directly above the sump site in 1985, was awarded $22 million for actual damages. Wright — a former consultant now in his early seventies — is alive today, according to his attorney, thanks only to relentless chemotherapy treatments that leave him so weakened he has to crawl up his stairs. The jury also awarded Wright an additional $41 million for punitive damages. That translates to $1 million for each year Union Oil failed to abide by a state law then in effect that required oil companies to excavate and remove the toxic remains — drilling muds, cuttings, contaminated water, and other industrial byproducts of oil drilling — before covering the site with fresh soil and selling the land for real estate development (pictured below).

Perhaps most devastating to Unocal’s defense were admissions made by their defense attorney Robert E. Meadows in closing arguments regarding punitive damages. Meadows contended that the $22 million award for damages delivered a strong enough message to Chevron and that punitive damages were not necessarily warranted. Furthermore, he argued, there was no evidence to indicate Union Oil personnel knew their conduct was unlawful because they weren’t aware of the law requiring that sumps be excavated at the time. Nor was there any evidence, he argued, that Union employees ever intended to harm Wright. Union Oil, he conceded, was guilty of negligence, but not of intentionally inflicting harm. “What we have, again, are a series of failures to act,” Meadows told the jurors. “We have a series of mistakes, oversights, people not knowing what they should have,” he said. “But it’s a failure to act over and over and over again that resulted in damages to Mr. Wright, and that is negligence.”

Meadows’s distinction between simple negligence and intent was apparently lost on the jury, but not on Jakob Norman, one of Wright’s attorneys. Norman would use Meadows’s own words to hammer away at Union Oil. “Over and over and over again, Union failed to act,” Norman argued. “Over and over and over again, Union failed to follow the law. They failed to go back and uncover that sump and take that bad stuff out.” Union Oil would only comply with the state law 41 years after the fact, he repeatedly told the jurors. “I’m not sure that 41 years later is necessarily what we would call good conduct.”

Union Oil and a partnership of five other oil companies created a sprawling Santa Maria oil patch back in 1964 — the Santa Maria Valley Oil & Gas Field — on land that today is solidly residential. For 10 years, this consortium of oil companies drilled and produced. Then they covered the land with soil. Had they hauled off the contaminated soil from the sump underneath what would become Wright’s home, it would have taken them seven to eight hours, Norman claimed. When Chevron assumed control of the land in 2011 — having purchased Union Oil in 2005 — the company initiated the cleanup and remediation work. By 2016, 6,650 tons of oil-contaminated soil would be taken away; health inspectors for the County of Santa Barbara would decree the site safe for residential habitation.

But that would be too late for Kevin Wright, the jury found. In 1985, Wright — then married with two kids — bought property from Union Oil at what is now 2822 Starfire Street in Santa Maria. There he built his house right above the unexcavated sump. Benzene molecules — famously volatile and carcinogenic — all but flew to the surface, his attorneys argued. “Benzene escapes,” Norman said in a recent interview. “That’s what it does.”