California Jury Convicts Plains for Pipeline Leak

After three months of trial and six days of deliberation, a jury in Santa Barbara County, California convicted Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. of one felony and eight misdemeanors for a May 2015 pipeline leak.  The Plains 901 pipeline ruptured near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, releasing oil that entered a storm drain and ravine and then the Pacific Ocean.

Negligence Can be a Felony
According to California law, spilling oil into state waters is a felony if done “knowingly” or if the person “reasonably should have known” of the discharge.  “Reasonably should have known” is the simple negligence standard.  In California, the state does not need to prove intentional, knowing, or even reckless conduct to obtain a felony conviction; the negligent spilling of oil into state waters is a felony.

Misdemeanors Have No State of Mind Requirement
In addition to the felony, the jury convicted Plains of eight misdemeanors.  One misdemeanor conviction was for failing to timely notify emergency response agencies of the spill.  Six misdemeanors were for killing wildlife and one was for violating a county prohibition on oil discharges.  For the misdemeanors, the state did not need to prove intent, knowledge, or even negligence.  These are essentially “strict liability” crimes where the occurrence is a crime regardless of the state of mind or preventative actions of the defendant.

Plains Claimed Responsibility and Took Remedial Efforts
Plains stated it had always taken responsibility for the spill, spent more than $150 million responding to it, and disagreed with the felony conviction.  The California Attorney General’s office issued a statement saying testimony showed over 140,000 gallons spilled and Plains, despite its efforts, was unable to recover over 100,000 gallons.

No jail time is at issue because no individual was convicted; one was indicted, but the charges were later dropped.  Sentencing is set for December 13, 2018.

Upcoming Continuing Education Event
Darlene Smith, a colleague and shareholder at Crain Caton & James, will present at the Texas Bar’s 7th Annual Course on Firearms Law:  What Every Texas Lawyer Needs to Know 2018.  Darlene, whose practice emphasizes probate, trust, and guardianship matters, will discuss the administration of estates that contain firearms.  The live presentation will be held in San Antonio, September 20-21 at the Norris Conference Center – Park North.  Attendees will receive 11.25 MCLE credits including 2 hours of ethics.

For more information, please go to http://www.texasbarcle.com/materials/Programs/3734/Brochure.pdf

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