Lake Charles Toxic Spill Case Explores Claims for Fear of Future Injury

On June 19, 2006, CITGO Petroleum Corp. released some four million gallons of hazardous slop oil and seventeen million gallons of wastewater into the Calcasieu River from the waste water treatment unit at its Lake Charles refinery. The overflow was caused in part by a storm that dropped more than six inches of rain in a three-hour period. The slop oil, which contained numerous toxic chemicals, fouled approximately one hundred miles of the river’s shoreline. Within a few days, the sludge migrated to the waters surrounding a small industrial plant located on an island in the river owned by the Calcasieu Refining Company (“CRC”), where several employees continued to work during CITGO’s clean-up efforts. Some of the workers in the dock area at CRC were directly exposed to the water and slop oil. They reported nausea, rashes, and peeling skin as a result. The vapors from the slop oil led to respiratory and central nervous system injuries to other workers. Complaints included headaches, nausea, dizziness, as well as eye, nose, and throat problems.

In May, 2007, fourteen plaintiffs from the CRC plant filed suit against CITGO for their injuries related to the spill. On September 17, 2008, CITGO entered a plea agreement in federal court over the spill in which it agreed to pay a $13 million criminal fine for various EPA violations. On September 19, 2008, the trial court entered a judgment against CITGO and awarded each CRC plaintiff general damages in the amount of $5,000, punitive damages in the amount of $30,000, and $2,500 for “fear of future injury.”

CITGO appealed, citing as error, among other things, that the award for fear of future injury lacked a basis in the evidence and was speculative. In support of its argument, CITGO cited a prior case, Broussard v. Olin Corp., where the plaintiff sought recovery for fear of developing cancer after he was exposed to phosgene gas. Because the plaintiff failed to clearly link phosgene gas exposure to an increased risk of cancer, the court in Broussard concluded that the claim was “mere speculation” and that the facts did not support an award for “anxiety.” The Third Circuit distinguished the present case in that CITGO’s own technical data showed that

“more than one of the chemicals in the slop oil can cause cancer, particularly benzene, a known carcinogen, and the [Material Safety Data Sheet] discusses chronic lung dysfunction, [and] organ and system damage.”

After reviewing the evidence presented at the trial of the plaintiffs’ physical conditions following exposure and considering the testimony of several medical experts, the court concluded the “plaintiffs had a justified fear of future injury,” and affirmed the trial court’s award.

The CITGO case offers a valuable lesson for plaintiffs who seek to recover damages for fear of developing future injuries as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals or other hazards. Such a claim requires that the future injury giving rise to the fear be causally linked to the initial exposure. Otherwise, the court will likely consider the claim to be too speculative.

If you have been exposed to toxic chemicals or other dangerous conditions, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help you determine all claims you may have available, both past and future.