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School oil-rig lawsuits dismissed

The cases claimed that toxic emissions at Beverly Hills High contributed to cancers among former students.

November 23, 2006|Martha Groves and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

A judge on Wednesday dismissed 12 lawsuits in a headline-making case brought by Erin Brockovich-Ellis' law firm against Beverly Hills and its school district, alleging that an oil well at Beverly Hills High School caused cancers in former students.

Without explaining his decision, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Wendell Mortimer Jr. granted the request of Beverly Hills and other defendants to dismiss the lawsuits, saying he would issue a more detailed ruling within 25 days.

The case, which had been set to go to trial next month, broke in 2003 and quickly generated intense controversy. Beverly Hills takes great pride in its high school; alumni include actors Nicolas Cage, Alicia Silverstone and Richard Dreyfuss.

Detractors accused Brockovich-Ellis and other plaintiffs' attorneys of using junk science. Brockovich-Ellis became known for her role in forcing a $333-million settlement by Pacific Gas & Electric for polluting the waters of Hinkley, Calif., near Barstow -- an episode recounted in "Erin Brockovich," a 2000 film for which Julia Roberts won a best actress Oscar in the title role.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction
Beverly Hills lawsuits: A story in Thursday's California section about a judge's dismissal of lawsuits brought by cancer patients against Beverly Hills and its school district incorrectly suggested that Sempra Energy still owned a Century City power plant near Beverly Hills High School. Sempra Generation, a Sempra Energy subsidiary, sold the facility earlier this year. However, Sempra Energy retained responsibility for defending lawsuits in this matter. Art Larson, a Sempra spokesman, said the facility provides heating and air conditioning for buildings in the area but does not produce electricity. It is, therefore, not a power plant, he said.

The plaintiffs said they would appeal.

"I respect the judge greatly but believe he has made the wrong decision," said Allen M. Stewart, the Dallas-based lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Brockovich, who is not a lawyer but works at the Masry & Vititoe law firm in Westlake Village, could not be reached for comment. Ed Masry, the attorney for whom she had worked as an investigator in the Hinkley case, died last year.

Beverly Hills City Atty. Laurence S. Wiener said in a statement that the ruling "sends a clear message that the plaintiffs' lawyers have not been able to support their claims that there is a health threat from emissions from the oil wells."

Mayor Steve Webb said the city and Beverly Hills Unified School District had spent more than $1 million on testing to determine that the area was safe. "We are gratified that the court's decision is consistent with the results of our testing," he said.

The oil rig, shrouded in panels painted with brightly colored flowers, has operated for decades at the northwest corner of Spalding Drive and Olympic Boulevard. Michael G. Edwards, a vice president of Venoco Inc., which owns the rig, said its 15 producing wells each day yield about 500 barrels of oil and 300,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

Venoco was named as a defendant in one of the dismissed suits. Sempra Energy was also a defendant, as owner of a power plant near the rig.

In February 2003, KCBS-TV Channel 2 broke the news that Brockovich-Ellis and Masry were looking into several cases of cancer among Beverly Hills High alumni. The segment spread panic among students, parents and administrators.

Over the ensuing months, Masry's firm located hundreds of people who believed that their cancers and other illnesses could have been attributed to the oil operation or the power plant. Most were Beverly Hills High students between 1975 and 1997. The suit said the oil wells discharged toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil around campus, contributing to cancer in the students.

The city and the school district, which have reaped millions of dollars in royalties from the operation over the years, sought to counter suggestions that Beverly Hills was allowing its children to be poisoned so that it could rake in oil revenue.

Many parents said the suspicions about tainted air terrified them. Some pulled their students out of the school.

As the case moved along, the city and the school district groused that Brockovich-Ellis and Masry had refused to divulge data that they said showed high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. The court ordered them to do so, and the numbers showed mostly normal readings.

The 12 cases were among hundreds that lawyers could still try to take to trial. They were selected because the plaintiffs had the most prevalent forms of cancer: Hodgkin's lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and breast, testicular, thyroid and skin cancer.

The dismissals satisfied Wendy Cozen, an epidemiologist and an associate professor of preventive medicine at USC. "There's not a lot of evidence that a standing oil well could cause Hodgkin's or non-Hodgkin's or thyroid cancer," she said.

"In view of the body of scientific evidence, it was a reasonable decision," she added.

One 1967 graduate of the high school said she believed that the case was a publicity stunt.

"The whole thing was really a pity," said Joan Isaacs, who is still a resident. "People questioned whether they should be sending their kids to Beverly Hills High School."

Isaacs also said the case never would have gained notoriety -- or even been filed -- if the oil well had been at any other school.

"If it had been Carson or Banning," she said, referring to two campuses in the South Bay, "it never would have happened."

martha.groves@latimes.com

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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