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Aaron v. ExxonMobil Corp.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

December 27, 2018

Andre Aaron, et al.
v.
Exxon Mobil Corporation Andre Aaron, et al.
v.
ExxonMobil, Corporation f/k/a Exxon Company U.S.A., Exxon Corporation Gloria H. Poole, et al.
v.
ExxonMobil, Corporation f/k/a Exxon Company U.S.A., Exxon Corporation Andre Aaron, et al.
v.
ExxonMobil, Corporation f/k/a Exxon Company U.S.A., Exxon Corporation Ayanna Abadie, et al.
v.
ExxonMobil, Corporation f/k/a Exxon Company U.S.A., Exxon Corporation Adelean McAlope, et al.
v.
ExxonMobil, Corporation f/k/a Exxon Company U.S.A., Exxon Corporation

          On Transfer from the Louisiana Supreme Court State of Louisiana Docket No. 2018-CD-0009

          On Application for Supervisory and/or Remedial Writs from the 19th Judicial District Court Parish of East Baton Rouge State of Louisiana Docket No. C-631, 599 c/w C-631, 686 and Docket No. C-661, 310 (on remand) Division O. Section 25 The Honorable Wilson E. Fields, Judge Presiding.

          On Appeal from the Baton Rouge City Court Parish of East Baton Rouge State of Louisiana Docket No. 0704-02964-D c/w 0704-02965-D c/w 0704-03054-A Division D Section I The Honorable Yvette M. Alexander, Judge Presiding.

          Martin A. Stern Raymond P. Ward New Orleans, Louisiana Kellen J. Mathews Baton Rouge, Louisiana Michael P. Cash Wade T. Howard Houston, Texas ATTORNEYS FOR RELATOR, DEFENDANT - ExxonMobil, Corporation f/k/ a Exxon Company U.S. A., Exxon Corporation

          Calvin C. Fayard, Jr. Denham Springs, Louisiana Lewis O. Unglesby Baton Rouge, Louisiana Rebecca Cunard Baton Rouge, Louisiana Roy F. Amedee, Jr. New Orleans, Louisiana David S. Scalia River Ridge, Louisiana ATTORNEYS FOR RESPONDENTS, PLAINTIFFS - Andre Aaron, et al., Ayanna Abadie, et al., Adelean McAlope, et al., and Gloria H. Poole, et al.

          Before: Pettigrew, Welch, and Chutz, JJ.

          Welch, J.

         This matter comes to us on transfer from the Louisiana Supreme Court for briefing, argument, and full opinion under this Court's supervisory jurisdiction.[1] See Aaron v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 2018-0009 (La. 3/9/18), 237 So.3d 1184. This is a mass tort suit involving several consolidated lawsuits filed in Baton Rouge City Court ("city court") that were appealed to the Nineteenth Judicial District Court ("19th JDC"). The litigation arises out of a fire that occurred at the ExxonMobil, Corporation ("Exxon") refinery in Baton Rouge on August 2, 1993. This appeal involves six plaintiffs who proceeded to trial together ("trial plaintiffs"). The defendant, Exxon, appeals the city court's May 1, 2017 judgment after remand, finding that Exxon was 100% at fault and liable to the trial plaintiffs for damages.

         For the reasons set forth more fully below, we find that the city court did not manifestly err in allocating 100% fault to Exxon after remand. We further find that the city court did not abuse its vast discretion in fixing the amount of general damages awarded. Accordingly, the writ application is denied; the judgment after remand is affirmed.

         Background

         This case arises from a pipe failure and rupture that resulted in a fire at the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge on August 2, 1993, at approximately 4:15 a.m. The fire occurred in the East Coker Unit of the Exxon refinery-one of three coker units at the refinery-which converted high-sulfur, heavy crude oil into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. A carbon steel piping elbow that was a component part of the East Coker Unit ruptured, causing an explosion. Two minutes later, escaping hydrocarbon gases ignited, causing a fire. Six minutes later, a nearby flushing oil line ruptured, releasing additional fuel for the fire. Around 6:40 a.m., the main part of the fire was extinguished. Smaller fires, producing no visible smoke, continued to burn until around 8:30 a.m. Two Exxon employees died as a result of the explosion and fire.

         The Exxon refinery is located on Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge, directly across the street from a densely populated residential community. During the two and a half hours the main fire burned, the fire produced a thick smoke plume, which moved in an easterly direction across the community adjacent to the facility. The explosion and fire also released ash and debris. The debris, including asbestos particles, was spewed from the East Coker Unit and scattered about the residential community located across the street from the refinery. The ash and debris landed on the people and property of the community.

         Law enforcement and fire department personnel, other emergency agencies, and stakeholders in the community, as well as Exxon staff, merged into the affected area and surrounding properties with emergency vehicles and equipment. Exxon dispatched personnel to conduct air sampling both inside the facility and in the surrounding community during the time of the fire. Exxon also set up several fixed-station monitors that picked up trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide near the refinery's east gate. The only substance picked up at measurable levels was carbon particulate-smoke.

         First responders clad in white "space type" protective jumpsuits inspected the community and retrieved contaminated debris and postulate matter in the atmosphere that had been scattered by the explosion and resulting fire. Residents were notified to "shelter in place" and turn off their air conditioning units and refrain from touching debris that had landed on and covered their property.

         The East Coker Unit was designed, constructed, and inspected by Foster Wheeler Corporation ("Foster Wheeler") in 1962 and 1963. Following the completion of construction, Humble Oil and Refining Company ("Humble Oil"), Exxon's predecessor in interest, accepted the work and began operation of the East Coker Unit in 1963, which continued until its destruction by the fire on August 2, 1993.[2]

         The East Coker Unit was a typical four drum coker unit that contained approximately forty-one miles of pipe and tubing and approximately ten thousand connecting elbows. The undisputed cause of the fire was the failure of a six-inch, forty-five degree carbon steel piping elbow in the pipe spool for Pump P-2A/B discharge piping, located in the East Coker Unit, which was installed as part of the unit's original construction, thirty years prior to the fire. According to Foster Wheeler's design specifications, the piping elbow that ruptured and caused the fire should have been manufactured of steel containing five percent chromium and one-half percent molybdenum. The chrome-moly material, unlike carbon steel, resists corrosion caused by the sulfur in heavy crude oil. Contrary to its own design specifications, however, the piping elbow installed by Foster Wheeler was manufactured of carbon steel, a material more susceptible to corrosion than chrome-moly steel.

         The piping in the East Coker Unit was installed by local pipe fitters subcontracted by Foster Wheeler. After installation, the piping circuit containing the incorrect carbon steel elbow was covered with asbestos insulation, and once covered, was hidden from visual inspection. The carbon steel elbow performed for thirty years, until it ruptured on August 2, 1993, causing the explosion and fire that destroyed the East Coker Unit.

         Procedural History

         Litigation resulting from the explosion and fire was brought in both federal and state courts. A putative class action was originally filed in the 19th JDC against Exxon and Foster Wheeler, which was removed to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. The putative class members sought damages allegedly sustained as a result of the pipe rupture and resulting fire. In that same matter, Exxon asserted a third-party claim against Foster Wheeler based on Foster Wheeler's design and construction of the East Coker Unit.[3] Ultimately, the federal district court dismissed the plaintiffs' claims against Foster Wheeler and also dismissed Exxon's third-party claim against Foster Wheeler on the grounds of the ten-year peremptive period applicable to claims based on construction.[4] See La. R.S. 9:2772 (prior to its amendment by 1999 La. Acts No. 1024, § 1 (eff. Aug. 15, 1999)). A companion suit was filed in the 19th JDC regarding Exxon's claims against Foster Wheeler, wherein the district court similarly dismissed Exxon's claims against Foster Wheeler on the grounds of the ten-year peremptive period applicable to claims based on construction.[5]

         With Exxon as the sole remaining defendant, the federal district court denied class certification, and following a bench trial, rendered judgment in favor of Exxon and against the plaintiffs, holding that Exxon was not liable to the plaintiffs for their alleged injuries under either a strict liability theory or negligence theory.[6] The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.[7]

         Baton Rouge City Court Litigation

         On April 20, 2007-prior to the handing down of the aforementioned decision by the federal district court-approximately 8, 500 plaintiffs who lived near the Exxon refinery at the time of the explosion and resulting fire filed three mass tort lawsuits against Exxon in city court, which are the subject of the instant supervisory writ application. The first suit was filed by 4, 172 plaintiffs against Exxon.[8] The second suit was filed by 2, 939 plaintiffs against Exxon.[9] The third suit was filed on behalf of 1, 450 minor plaintiffs against Exxon.[10] The plaintiffs alleged that Exxon was liable under theories of negligence pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2315[11] and strict liability pursuant to La. C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322[12] for all of their injuries and damages caused by the explosion and fire. The plaintiffs contended that they suffered damages including "personal injury, past and future pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses, mental anguish and emotional distress, damage to their homes and structures, diminution in the value of their property, other economic damages, loss of society and quality of life, loss of community[, ] and other damages to be set forth and established" due to Exxon's negligence. The plaintiffs also alleged that the "explosion and fire caused the release of noxious and toxic chemicals, which permeated the atmosphere over the area adjacent to the Exxon refinery site and into the surrounding communities," which caused injuries to the plaintiffs including "considerable fear, mental anguish, uncertainty[, ] and inconvenience of the populace of the communities surrounding the refinery site...." The city court consolidated the three suits and transferred the matter to Division D.[13]

         On December 2 and 3, 2013, the city court conducted a trial on the claims of six plaintiffs out of the thousands who filed suit against Exxon.[14] The city court heard closing arguments on January 31, 2014. After closing arguments, the city court announced its ruling, holding that the trial plaintiffs proved their claims of negligence pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2315, and rendered judgment in favor of the trial plaintiffs, awarding damages as follows: (1) $7, 500.00 to Gloria H. Poole; (2) $7, 500.00 to Patricia A. Brue; (3) $7, 500.00 to Dorothy J. Browder; (4) $4, 000.00 to Barbara W. Burks; (5) $7, 500.00 to Doris J. Vondo; and (6) $7, 500.00 to D'Ann L. Scott. The city court further held that the trial plaintiffs failed to prove their claims of strict liability pursuant to La. C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322. On February 24, 2014, the city court signed a partial final judgment in accordance with its oral ruling.[15] The city court issued written reasons for judgment on March 14, 2014, which stated, in pertinent part:

The Court[, ] having reviewed the exhibits and briefs and heard the evidence, finds that [Exxon] had a duty to maintain and operate the Baton Rouge refinery in a manner that would not endanger the health of the local residents. [Exxon] breached this duty. The Court also finds that [Exxon's] breach was the proximate cause of the Trial Plaintiff[s'] damages and that the Trial Plaintiffs were within the zone of danger. Accordingly, this Court finds [Exxon] liable to the Trial Plaintiffs for their claim[s] of negligence pursuant to La. Civ. Code Ann. Art. 2315. The Court also finds that the Trial Plaintiffs failed to prove their claims of strict liability pursuant to La. Civ. Code Ann. Art[s.] 2317 and 2322.

         Appeals to the 19th JDC[16]

         Exxon appealed from the portion of the city court's February 24, 2014 judgment finding Exxon negligent and awarding damages to the trial plaintiffs.[17]Exxon argued that the city court erred in failing to assign any fault to Foster Wheeler and in awarding excessive damages to the plaintiffs, who they argued suffered minor symptoms or no symptoms at all and who never sought medical attention.

         The trial plaintiffs also appealed from the portion of the city court's February 24, 2014 judgment finding that Exxon was not strictly liable.[18] The 19th JDC consolidated Exxon's appeal with the trial plaintiffs' appeal and transferred the matter to Section 25, Division O.

         The 19th JDC held oral arguments on the appeals on November 10, 2014. The 19th JDC orally rendered judgment affirming the city court's judgment on December 10, 2014, and issued written reasons on January 7, 2015, which stated, in pertinent part:

Whereupon, the Court found that the City Court, the trial court in this matter, did not abuse [its] discretion. For these reasons[, ] the Court affirmed the judgment from Baton Rouge City Court on December 10, 2014.
The Court further adopts the Appellee's brief as its written reasons.

         The 19th JDC signed a judgment in accordance therewith on January 22, 2015.

         Review by the First Circuit and Supreme Court

         Thereafter, Exxon applied for supervisory and/or remedial writs with the Louisiana Supreme Court. The supreme court granted writs and remanded the matter to this Court for consideration under our supervisory jurisdiction. See Aaron v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 2015-0045 (La. 4/10/15), 163 So.3d 800.

         On remand, [19] this Court issued the following action:

WRIT GRANTED. This matter is remanded to the City Court of Baton Rouge for a determination of whether a stipulation between the parties or other evidence, including a judicial admission, was introduced as to whether Foster Wheeler Corporation installed the elbow pipe that ruptured in the East Coker Unit, whether that pipe was different from that stated in the design and building specifications for that unit, and whether the ruptured pipe caused or contributed to the alleged injuries suffered by the plaintiffs. Based on the record, the trial court should make a determination of whether Foster Wheeler Corporation was at fault, and if so, the percentage of fault attributable to Foster Wheeler Corporation. See La. Civ. Code arts. 2323 and 2324. See also La. Code Civ. P. arts. 1812(C) and 1917(B).
GH
WRC
JMG

Aaron v. ExxonMobil, Corp., 2015-1829 (La.App. 1 Cir. 3/08/16) (unpublished writ action).

         Thereafter, Exxon applied for supervisory and/or remedial writs in the Louisiana Supreme Court, which issued the following action:

Granted. The judgment of the court of appeal is amended to provide that the city court should also reconsider its damage awards in this matter pursuant to the standards set forth in Howard v. Union Carbide Corp., 09-2750 (La. 10/19/10), 50 So.3d 1251.
SJC
BJJ
JLW ...

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