Complex legal battle over O.C. oil spill starts to take shape in federal court – OCRegister

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Attorneys from well-connected local and high-powered national law firms showed up Wednesday in a Santa Ana courthouse as a federal judge began to set the stage for a complex legal battle over the recent pipeline breach that leaked 25,000 gallons of oil into the sea off Orange County.
With 14 civil lawsuits involving at least 22 law firms already filed in federal court since the early October oil spill off of Huntington Beach, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is planning to decide on which lawyers should take the reins as lead counsel in the high-profile case. That decision will allow for a combined class-action lawsuit to move forward even as the cleanup and investigations into the origins of the spill are ongoing.
Carter, who garnered headlines in recent years for presiding over lawsuits regarding the treatment of the homeless in Southern California, said he is looking for attorneys who have both deep local ties and also the legal resources to handle what is expected to be a particularly complicated civil case.
“I’m seeking that true devotion to Orange County and Los Angeles County and that 800-pound gorilla,” the judge said of the legal firms.
The judge also made clear he wants to move quickly, ideally within a two-year time frame, in order to avoid years and years of drawn out litigation.
The previously filed oil spill lawsuits have been filed on behalf of local homeowners, businesses and groups who allege that poor maintenance of an underwater pipeline led to polluted public beaches and damage to private property along the coast. The civil filings have targeted Amplify Energy Corp and its subsidiary companies, specifically the San Pedro Bay Pipeline Company, which operated the pipeline, and Beta Offshore, which operates oil rigs.
Legal filings allege that the pipeline ruptured on or around Oct. 2, with oil leaking out of a crack or a split into the ocean waters five miles from the Huntington Beach shore. Beaches and harbors in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Dana Point were closed for nine days.
Hours after the hearing, a federal grand jury indicted Amplify Energy and its subsidiaries on charges of illegally discharging oil during a pipeline break. The indictment alleges negligence by the companies in the immediate aftermath of the oil spill, but did not speak to the actual cause of the leak. Amplify representatives have denied wrongdoing.
Attorneys in their legal filings related to the civil cases have acknowledged that the cause of the spill is still under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI. Investigators are reportedly looking into the possibility that an anchor or anchors from one or more commercial ships could have struck the pipeline.
The previously filed lawsuits have questioned the upkeep of the pipelines, as well as how promptly the operators of the pipeline responded to its failure.
The significance of the spill, and the resulting legal actions, was clear from the combined experience of the environmental attorneys who appeared before Carter. The group included attorneys who have been involved in litigation tied to a wide variety of environmental disasters, including numerous wildfires, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Refugio oil spill, the groundwater contamination dramatized in the film “Erin Brockovich” and the Aliso Canyon gas leak.
On Wednesday, several attorneys told the judge that the expedited time frame he wants to move forward with would almost certainly require them to at least initially rely on their own investigations rather than wait for government reports into the cause of the spill.
In questioning the attorneys, Carter made clear how complex the legal battle will likely be, while warning them that he would be “pushing hard.”
Carter said that attorneys in the case may have to juggle the potentially competing desires of state and local officials. He also noted that the firms may have to deal with tracking down evidence or taking depositions in foreign countries, or dealing with bankruptcy court, should Amplify Energy or its subsidiary companies opt to file bankruptcy.
The judge also pointed out that the attorneys will have to decide on how to balance seeking monetary penalties, which would mean money for their clients, with injunctive relief that could lead to changes in the operations of oil pipelines or rigs and potentially improve public safety.
Firms hoping to take the lead in the case already have formed their own coalitions, several of which included local firms with deeper ties to Orange County and larger firms with more resources at the state or national level. Carter said he may agree to one of those already formed coalitions, or suggest one of his own.
Attorneys with Kirkland & Ellis, who are representing Amplify, agreed with the judge that having a lead counsel to deal with on the various lawsuits would be a help, adding that “we want this resolved.”
Carter did not set a specific timeline for when he expects to choose the lead attorney or attorneys.
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