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1990 Oil Spill Suit Still Stuck in Court

Litigation: Tanker firm is accused of repeatedly filing the same motions and other delaying tactics. Some of the original plaintiffs have passed away.

December 24, 2001|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 416,000 gallons of Alaskan crude fouled the Orange County coast in early 1990, hundreds of businesses, commercial fisherman and property owners went to court and sued for more than $14 million in damages.

Douglas Edlund, a Corona del Mar real estate investor, asked for $6,500 in lost income from his oceanfront rental on 66th Street in Newport Beach. Mark Hendriks, a dory fisherman from Costa Mesa, sought roughly $30,000 in earnings he figures he lost.

The State Fish Co. cannery in San Pedro wanted $400,000, and the Waterfront Hilton in Huntington Beach demanded $2.7 million to cover damages from a mass cancellation of reservations before the resort's grand opening.

They have yet to collect a penny.

Almost 12 years since one of the worst oil spills in state history, the case remains tied up in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, where 250 plaintiffs are fighting to recover losses they allegedly suffered when the American Trader gashed its hull off Huntington Beach on Feb. 7, 1990.

The plaintiffs expected the case to be long over by now, even though "we weren't running around with rose-colored glasses," said Robert Ashley, who has operated sportfishing businesses in local waters for almost 40 years. "There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs blame the American Trader's defense team for turning the lawsuit into a protracted paper war. The same motions have been filed repeatedly, they say, and there have been five unsuccessful attempts by the defense to dismiss the case.

Court records show that the tanker company has fought to prevent other defendants from settling the case, and an entire year was consumed by a defense appeal that turned out to be groundless. Even the judge, Robert J. Kelleher, said the matter should have been resolved years ago.

Lawyers for the American Trader attribute the delay to the complexity of the case and a snarl of litigation, including actions by state and federal authorities to recover their own damages from the spill.

Those lawsuits were concluded in 1999, resulting in $30 million in settlements for local, state and federal government--$16 million of it paid by the owner of the American Trader, Attransco Inc.

"We have a litigious society and that includes defendants and plaintiffs," said John Reilly, Attransco's lead attorney since 1998. "There have been many parties, many claims, and many different forums. Look at how long the Exxon Valdez case has taken."

In 1989, more than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaskan waters after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. Last month, a federal appeals court struck down a $5-billion judgment for punitive damages against Exxon Mobil.

Whatever the reason, the final American Trader case has taken so long that some of the original plaintiffs have died, including Giuseppe Cracchiolo, a commercial fisherman from San Pedro, and Timothy Meek, a 33-year-old dory man who disappeared while fishing off Newport Beach in 1998.

To some of those still standing, the oil spill was a life-changing event. It undermined jobs, caused financial hardship and pushed marriages to the breaking point, plaintiffs said.

A few left Orange County to restart their lives, only to return years later to find the lawsuit they gave up on still had a pulse. One of them was Dale Sleight, 53, of Garden Grove, a former lobster and crab fisherman who says he lost more than 50 traps during the spill.

"People who were doing well started to struggle," Sleight said. "My world fell apart. I lost my wife, my business and my career."

Sleight fished in Alaska for a few years, then tried farming in Washington. When that didn't work, he returned to Orange County, where he is now a construction supervisor. He wanted to fish again, but he says he could not get a new license or afford lobster traps.

"It still really hurts," said Sleight, who is seeking $50,000 in damages. "Some of my friends at the dory fleet have passed away. Some of them were married. They will never recover what they lost and neither will I. Fishing meant more to me than life itself."

The afternoon of Feb. 7, 1990, Sleight was in Dana Point tending traps as the American Trader maneuvered into an offshore terminal owned by Golden West Refining Co. of Santa Fe Springs. Aboard was more than 24 million gallons of Alaskan crude belonging to BP America Inc.

U.S. Coast Guard officials later concluded that the 811-foot vessel struck its own anchor, punching two holes in the hull. It was the maritime equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.

The oil came ashore along 15 miles of Orange County coastline, from Sunset Beach to Crystal Cove. The worst of the spill hit Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Bolsa Chica State Beach, closing the shore for four to five weeks.

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