Counterclaims complicate Hartford vapor case

Steve Korris Oct. 5, 2006, 2:07pm

Circuit Judge Dan Stack

Mark Goldenberg

Just when attorneys for Shell Oil and Premcor Refining Group thought they had settled claims over foul vapors in the village of Hartford, attorneys for two other oil companies exposed them to new claims.

Atlantic Richfield and BP Products North America filed counterclaims Sept. 27 against Shell Oil subsidiary Equilon Enterprises and Premcor Refining Group, owner of an oil refinery in Hartford.

Equilon and Premcor in August proposed an $8 million settlement with Hartford residents. Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack granted preliminary approval.

Equilon and Premcor asserted that they faced minimal liability compared to other companies that have refined and transported products at the refinery.

Now Atlantic Richfield and BP Products intend to challenge that assertion.

The counterclaims complicate a situation that already would have left anyone as dizzy as if he inhaled the vapors in Hartford.

Over many decades the refinery deposited a pool of petroleum beneath Hartford. Each rainfall pushes vapors up from the pool and into homes.

In 2003 a team of Missouri attorneys filed suit in Madison County for Katherine Sparks and others, claiming the vapors reduced property values and quality of life.

The Missouri attorneys named a long list of defendants, covering companies that had performed all sorts of activities at the refinery over many years.

The Missouri attorneys proposed to certify a class action suit, with Sparks representing all Hartford residents.

In 2004 attorneys Mark Goldenberg of Edwardsville filed a similar suit for dozens of Hartford residents, with one difference.

Goldenberg rejected a class action and pressed individual claims.

Last year Stack certified Sparks to lead the Missouri team's class action.

Defendants Apex Oil and Sinclair Oil moved for reconsideration, however, and Stack granted it. He did not decertify the class action, but he left it in doubt.

Goldenberg took advantage. His firm opened negotiations with Equilon and Premcor to settle claims throughout Hartford on a class action basis.

At that point the Missouri attorneys who asked for a class action did not have one, and the Edwardsville attorneys who did not ask for a class action had one.

The Missouri team learned of the settlement after one of their clients heard about it from a Goldenberg client.

The Missouri team asked Stack to block the settlement. He did not block it.

They asked for immediate certification of their class action. He did not grant it.

Elizabeth Heller of the Goldenberg firm then filed a new complaint against Equilon and Premcor, proposing to certify a class settlement.

Stack granted preliminary approval Aug. 28.

The older lawsuits kept running. The Goldenberg firm continued to assert individual claims against all other defendants in its suit from 2004, and the Missouri team continued to assert class claims against all defendants in its suit from 2003.

On Sept. 8 the Missouri team asked the Illinois Supreme Court for a supervisory order that would overturn Stack's preliminary approval of the Goldenberg settlement.

The Supreme Court has not set a hearing on the matter.

On Sept. 27 attorney Susan Harris of Chicago filed counterclaims for Atlantic Richfield and BP Products, not only against Equilon and Premcor but also against Sinclair Oil and Apex Oil.

Harris wrote that Atlantic Richfield and BP Products continue to deny that they are liable for alleged injuries.

She wrote that Equilon, Premcor, Apex Oil and Sinclair Oil or their predecessors or their successors "have each owned or operated a petroleum refinery, pipeline, storage facilities, and/or other facilities in and/or around the village of Hartford…"

She wrote that if plaintiffs obtain a judgment for damages as a result of products leaking into the soil and water table, Atlantic Richfield and BP Products would be entitled to contribution from the counterclaim defendants.

She wrote that under the Illinois Joint Tortfeasor Act, Atlantic Richfield and BP Products could recover any damages in excess of their proportionate shares of common liability.

She wrote that if judgment is entered against Atlantic Richfield and BP Products, the court should determine relative culpability among the defendants.

The counterclaims required service on 26 attorneys.

Harris served counterclaims on plaintiff attorneys David Helfrey, Philip Graham, Allison Price, Kevin Davidson, David Zevan and Christopher Dysart of St. Louis, and Norman Siegel and Teresa Woody of Kansas City.

She served them on Sinclair Oil attorneys Joseph Nassif, Richard Jacobs, Michael Montgomery and Crystal Lovett-Tibbs of St. Louis, Bernard Ysursa of Belleville and Lynn Hart of Salt Lake City, Utah.

She served Apex Oil attorneys James O'Brien, Theodore Lucas, Vincent Reese and Richard Ahrens of St. Louis, and William Knapp of Edwardsville.

She served Equilon attorneys Richard Greenberg and Gregory Mollett of St. Louis and Lance Tolson of Houston, Texas.

She served Premcor attorneys Louis Bonacorsi, Ann Barron, Christopher Schmidt and James Bennett, all of St. Louis.

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