ExxonMobil remains 100 percent liable for damages in 1993 East Coker Unit fire, state appeals court says

By Karen Kidd | Jan 8, 2019

BATON ROUGE — After years of litigation, ExxonMobile remains fully liable for injuries of at least six of the thousand of plaintiffs who filed suit in Baton Rouge City Court following the 1993 fire at the East Coker Unit at ExxonMobil's refinery,a recent ruling by Louisiana's First Circuit Court of Appeal said.

"For the reasons set forth more fully below, we find that the city court did not manifestly err in allocating 100 percent fault to Exxon after remand," the appeals court said in its 26-page consolidated judgment handed down Dec. 27. "We further find that the city court did not abuse its vast discretion in fixing the amount of general damages awarded."

In its judgment, the appeals court denied application for supervisory and/or remedial writs by the oil and gas giant headquartered in Irving, Texas, and affirmed the city court's judgment after remand.

Appeals Court Judge Jewel E."Duke" Welch wrote the judgment in which Judges John T. Pettigrew and Judge Wayne Ray Chutz concurred.

The mass tort of several consolidated lawsuits previously was transferred to the appeals court by the Louisiana Supreme Court for briefs, argument and an option under the appeals court's supervisory jurisdiction.

The consolidated lawsuits, originally filed by six plaintiffs in Baton Rouge City Court, stem from an August 1993 pipe failure and rupture fire at ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge refinery on Scenic Highway. The refinery is across the street from a densely populated residential area, according to the background portion of the appeals court's judgment.

The fire and explosion in the East Coker Unit of the refinery killed two Exxon employees and sent a thick, smoky plume over the residential area, releasing ash and debris, "including asbestos particles," that "landed on the people and property of the community," the judgment said.

As litigation in state and federal courts played out, ExxonMobile ultimately became the last defendant standing and a federal district court denied class certification and ruled that ExxonMobile was liable for the plaintiffs' alleged injuries. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in June 2009.

Litigation in Baton Rouge City Court had been filed by thousands of plaintiffs a little more than two years before the federal appeals court ruling. The suits alleged ExxonMobile was negligently and strictly liable under the Louisiana Constitution. Trial commenced in December 2013 on the claims of six of those plaintiffs and in March of the following year the city court ruled those plaintiffs had proven their claims proved their claims of negligent liability but not of strict liability.

Both sides appealed and in January 2015 the 19th Judicial District Court affirmed the city's court's judgment.

ExxonMobile the applied to the state Supreme Court for supervisory and/or remedial writs, which the high court granted and remanded the case to the First Circuit Court of Appeal for consideration under the lower court's supervisory jurisdiction. The appeals court likewise remanded the case to the city court.

ExxonMobil again applied to the state Supreme Court for supervisory and/or remedial writs and the high court amended the appeals court judgment directing the city court to reconsider damage awards.

In May 2018, the city court issued its finding that ExxonMobile is 100 percent at fault and liable to the plaintiffs' damages. After yet another remand to the 19th Judicial District Court and another ExxonMobile application to the state Supreme Court for supervisory and/or remedial writs, the high court transferred the case back to the First Circuit Court of Appeal, which heard oral arguments in September.

"Based on our review of the entire record, as well as the city court's detailed reasons for judgment after remand, we find no manifest error in the factual findings made by the city court relative to its quantum determinations," the appeals court said in its judgment. "Further, we find no abuse of the city court's broad discretion in the general damage awards made."

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