Lake Charles Oil Spill Case Affirms and Explains High Damage Award

2-man-on-construction-site-during-daytime-159306-1-1024x683What happens if you are exposed to something dangerous at work?  In the not too distant past, there would be no hope of restoration and only devastation. Today, with gratitude to some excellent lawyers and lawmakers, there are legal protections for people who are exposed to hazardous working conditions.  Negligent companies can still be required to pay damages even for a 10-year-old oil spill. In several cases from a 2006 Lake Charles oil spill, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a damage award despite the award being significantly higher than other damage awards in similar cases.  

In 2006, seven men were working several different jobs at the Calcasieu Refining Company (“Refinery”).  On June 16, 2006, CITGO Petroleum Corporation (“CITGO”) experienced a slop oil release at its refinery on Lake Charles.  As a result, 17 million gallons of wastewater was released with large portions of heavy oil reaching the Calcasieu Refinery (“Refinery”) and remaining there for weeks.  It took two months for the oil to be cleaned up. In the interim, the seven men working at the Refinery were exposed to the slop oil almost daily.  

The men worked for three different companies doing various jobs.  Some worked directly on the clean-up effort and came into contact with the oil.  Others were working on building projects at the Refinery or as supervisors. Despite different experiences with the slop oil at the Refinery, the men all experienced similar symptoms to the exposure.  All of the men complained of severe headaches and sinus problems. Most of the men also complained of intestinal problems. The men were all exposed to a toxic substance containing a well-known carcinogen called benzene.  There is no medical treatment for benzene exposure and all the men reported feeling afraid of developing cancer from the exposure. Moreover, there was no medical treatment for their ailments at all. Time could only ease the symptoms.  

In the Judicial District Court for the Parish of Calcasieu, each man was awarded damages for medical expenses plus general damages for pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and fear of developing a disease.  CITGO appealed to the Third Circuit complaining that the damage awards, ranging from approximately $39,000 to $80,000 per person, were too high.  

In Louisiana, a court of appeal can only overturn an award of general damages if they find the district court abused its discretion in fixing the damage amount.  See Bouquet v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 979 So.2d 456 (La. 2008).  The court of appeal is not to decide whether the award was appropriate.  Courts have found that general damages are speculative and cannot be fixed with mathematical certainty.  Only if the Third Circuit in this case found that the District Court abused its discretion would the Third Circuit be able to compare the awards in this case with the awards in the following similar cases: Arabie v. CITGO Pet. Corp. 49 So.3d 985 (La. Ct. App. 2010) and Arabie v. CITGO Pet. Corp., 175 So.3d 1180 (La. Ct. App. 2015).  

The Third Circuit here ruled that although the awards were high compared with the injuries, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in calculating the awards.  The District Court’s judgment indicated that the judge considered each individual case and made the awards based on each plaintiff’s facts. The fact that the men’s medical expense awards were drastically lower than their general damage awards did not automatically mean the District Court judge abused her discretion as CITGO argued.  In fact, the Third Circuit found the medical portion of the award was so low because there was simply no medical treatment available to the men. Only time would relieve the symptoms of exposure and, therefore, it follows that the medical costs award would be lower than the general damages award.  

Fortunately for the men in this case, it is rather difficult for an appellate court to overturn an award of general damages.  In this case, the District Court judge understood that with no available medical treatment there would not be much of a medical expense award.  After the pain and suffering the men experienced, it certainly would be unjust to leave them with little monetary compensation. The deference given to district courts in awarding damages is a bright-line legal rule that brought some justice to the sad effects of an oil spill.  

Additional Sources: SHAWN CORMIER, ET AL. VERSUS CITGO PETROLEUM CORPORATION ET AL.  

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Stephanie Burnham 

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Louisiana General Damage Awards: The Role of the Appellate Court and Specific Case Facts in Awarding General Damages