Once united, now divided: Oil companies play blame game in Hartford dispute

Steve Korris May 8, 2008, 5:11am




Oil companies that defended themselves as a team for five years against claims that they polluted the village of Hartford have split apart, with Premcor Refining Group and Shell Oil joining the plaintiff team and Sinclair Oil and BP Products screaming foul.

Sinclair suspects that Shell and Premcor, successor to Clark Oil, carried to the plaintiff camp reports that BP and Sinclair helped pay for.

Shell and Premcor have agreed to settle two suits in Madison County circuit court by spending $16 million in Hartford.

They intend to recover it by shifting blame.

As part of the settlement, Premcor will supply science proving BP and Sinclair created an oily underground pool that pushes nasty vapor into homes with each rainfall.

Now BP and Sinclair want to know everything about the settlement, so they can try to derail it at a fairness hearing July 15.

Stack heard Sinclair's motion for expedited discovery May 7 and signed the parties' agreed order to continue until June 4.

Weeks ago, when Shell and Premcor agreed to settle, their attorneys arranged to present the settlement to Stack at a routine case management conference on April 3.

BP and Sinclair found out about the plan April 2 and decided to crash the event.

When Joe Whyte of Edwardsville spoke up for BP at the start of the hearing, plaintiff attorney Mark Goldenberg of Edwardsville protested.

"I am not sure what their standing is to object to a motion for preliminary approval at this time," Goldenberg said.

"There is nothing that is going to happen in the granting of the preliminary approval that prejudices the no settling defendants whatsoever," he said.

Whyte objected to preliminary approval going forward and said the settlement would prevent BP from settling with plaintiffs.

"Wait a minute," Stack said. "Is this the reason that you object to the preliminary approval or do you object to having a hearing on the preliminary approval?"

Whyte said, "There are some elements of the settlement as proposed that adversely affect our rights.

"When your honor sent us to mediation many months ago, BP was willing to put in its fair share and in fact BP remains willing, ready and able today to contribute eight million dollars to this settlement.

"All of a sudden that didn't happen any more and it looks like there were just discussions between the settling defendants and we were shut out.

"We are trying to settle the case and they are asking your honor to enter an injunction that prevents us from settling until the final approval of this."

Stack told Whyte he could present something at the end of the hearing.

Goldenberg said, "We believe some defendants are more culpable than others and that forms the basis for this current settlement.

"The reason we are not taking eight million from Amoco is, we believe they are more culpable."

His associate Stan Faulkner said that at a fairness hearing he would ask for a good faith finding and an award of attorney's fees.

"We are also asking you to stay all discovery and/or other proceedings as it pertains to Premcor and Shell," he said.

Stack said, "You mean even as to co-defendants?"

Goldenberg said it was a moot point.

Whyte's associate Brian Centeno asked, "So any other defendant is not precluded from proceeding with discovery in this matter or any matter?"

Stack said, "That's what I understood. That's why I asked the question."

Centeno said, "The way it is written bars any party from seeking discovery against Shell and Premcor."

Stack said, "Parties to the settlement or parties to the case?"

Whyte said, "Everybody, and it is not limited to this case even."

Faulkner said, "It is all moot, your honor. You just established the fact that plaintiffs were barred from seeking discovery and nobody else was."

Centeno said, "Part of the reason why they want to settle with Premcor is because Premcor has this expert findings analysis that points the finger at someone else.

"Obviously we are talking about BP here."

He asked for discovery on what information Shell and Premcor provided to plaintiffs.

"It goes to the heart of the issue," Centeno said, "whether this settlement is fair."

Stack said, "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Stack heard next from Jim O'Brien of St. Louis on behalf of the fifth wheel, Apex Oil, a defendant that the others froze out of mediation last year.

O'Brien reminded Stack that a class certification motion was pending.

"It all kind of got put on hold while this process played itself out," O'Brien said.

Stack said, "If somebody comes in and does an agreed class certification for settlement purposes only, it couldn't possibly affect how I might rule on that motion to certify."

O'Brien said he wanted to make sure that was clear.

Plaintiff attorney Teresa Woody of Kansas City, Mo., touted the settlement's benefits including $1 million for a medical fund.

Stack said, "This is all property damage but I'm not sure about this."

Woody said, "There would be a release of what I would call day to day aches and pains."

She said the release would exclude blood disorders and malignancy.

For Premcor, Jim Bennett of Clayton, Mo., said, "We continue to deny liability but do believe, as reflected in our joint motion, that the settlement is reasonable in light of the expense and risks of litigation and so have agreed to it."

Centeno told Stack, "When you are scheduling the fairness hearing I would ask that it be kicked out far enough to be able to entertain discovery that we plan on serving."

Bennett said, "This is exactly what they are trying to do, delay things."

Centeno said, "We were going down a path of global resolution when all of a sudden things changed.

"In order to determine whether this is fair or not, you have to ask yourself, why wouldn't they have picked up the phone and called us back?"

Stack said, "No, I don't. As long as it is fair to the class, that is not my concern.

"Maybe you guys can start talking again and everybody can be settled."

Centeno said, "Judge, if they would return phone calls we could."

Stack said he wouldn't listen to complaints about who called or didn't.

"I really don't give a tinker's dam," he said.

Whyte said, "We just want to be sure that there is time built into the schedule for us to obtain the information that we feel is necessary."

Goldenberg said, "They know Premcor's science. They have seen the science."

Stack said, "If it comes right down to it, we will find out what a jury thinks about everybody's science."

He set the fairness hearing July 15.

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