A special-purpose non-profit company representing 101 La Brea residents, who were affected by an oil spill in December 2013, has lost its bid to pursue a multi-million dollar negligence lawsuit against former State-oil company Petrotrin on their behalf.
Delivering a judgment on Monday, five Law Lords of the United Kingdom-based Privy Council ruled that a High Court Judge and the Court of Appeal were correct to refuse to allow La Brea Environs Protectors (LBEP) to represent the residents in their lawsuit over compensation.
The decision in the appeal does not mean that the residents, who claim they suffered negative health effects as a result of the oil spill and clean-up activities, will be without the possibility of redress, as they still have a pending application to substitute some of them as claimants in the lawsuit.
According to the evidence in the case, the oil spill took place in mid-December 2013. Villagers woke up to a strong smell of gas in the air and found oil along a local beach. The residents informed the company several months later and sued Petrotrin and the Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSH Agency).
In their lawsuit, the company claimed Petrotrin acted negligently by using the chemical Corexit 9500 in its clean-up activities. The oil dispersant has been banned by several international countries since 1988.
They also contended that Petrotrin hired some of them to clean beaches without providing proper safety equipment and that the OSH Agency failed to ensure Petrotrin complied with health and safety legislation.
Petrotrin and the OSH Agency denied any wrongdoing, as they claimed they did not owe the company a duty of care.
In 2018, Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams dismissed the company’s application to represent its members but did not rule on the alternate application to substitute some residents to represent the others.
The company’s appeal was subsequently dismissed by Chief Justice Ivor Archie and Appellate Judge Charmaine Pemberton in 2019.
In deciding the case, Lord David Kitchin, who wrote the judgement, stated that while the local courts had flexibility in their discretion to allow the case to proceed, they came to the correct conclusion.
While he noted the residents possibly had strong claims against Petrotrin and the agency based on the seriousness of the allegations in the lawsuit, he said the company did not, as it did not exist at the time of the oil spill.
“It is hard to discern any coherent case that Petrotrin or the OSH Agency owned any duty of care to LBEP, or that LBEP, as opposed to its members, has suffered any loss or damage for which Petrotrin or the OSH Agency is responsible,” Lord Kitchin said.
Lord Kitchin refused to consider whether the residents could be substituted in place of the company to keep the case alive.
While he stated that “it would be hard not to feel considerable sympathy” for the affected residents, Lord Kitchin said the application was still pending before the local courts.
He said he and his colleagues had not been provided with sufficient evidence that the members had agreed to be substituted after being advised of the potential consequences. He also pointed out that the substitution application may not have been made with “reasonable promptitude.”
The residents’ company was represented by Elton Prescott, SC and Farai Hove Masaisai, while Gilbert Peterson and Amirah Rahaman represented Petrotrin. Ravindra Nanga represented the OSH Agency.