Oil spill lawsuits find way to Texas court

Updated: 2012-07-04 02:48

By Wang Qian (China Daily)

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30 fishermen in Shandong sue US giant for compensation over disaster

US attorneys acting on behalf of 30 fishermen in Shandong province filed a lawsuit against ConocoPhillips in the Southern District Court of Texas on Monday (Tuesday, Beijing time).

The move is the latest attempt by people affected by oil spills in Bohai Bay in June last year to win compensation from the US company allegedly responsible for the disaster.

Three firms — Bilek Law Firm LLP in Houston, Smith Stag LLC in New Orleans, and Jones, Swanson, Huddell & Garrison LLC, also in New Orleans — have been preparing the class action since last year.

"The reason we have filed the suit is to obtain compensation for our fishermen clients, who have been denied a hearing in China. We want to make sure that ConocoPhillips does more than merely take public responsibility but actually pays fair compensation to those that have been injured," Thomas Bilek of Bilek Law Firm LLP in Houston, told China Daily in a phone interview.

Although the case can be "uncertain and long", he said it had a good chance of success.

According to an e-mail response to China Daily on Tuesday morning, Stuart Smith with Smith Stag LLC said: "It was in the US where executives for ConocoPhillips made many of the decisions that led to the environmental carnage in Bohai Bay. We are bringing the case in Houston, where ConocoPhillips is headquartered."

Donna Xue, spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips China, said her office did not have any knowledge of the lawsuit and declined to comment further before she could contact the company's headquarters in the United States.

The 30 Shandong fishermen are the first group and another 470 have already signed contracts with the three US law firms that are filing the lawsuit against ConocoPhillips, Jia Fangyi, a lawyer at Great Wall Law Firm in China, told reporters in Beijing on Monday.

Jia acts as a bridge between Chinese fishermen and US law firms.

Jia said the estimated direct economic losses caused by the oil leak for the 500 Shandong fishermen were about 870 million yuan ($137 million), and more fishermen near Bohai Bay are contacting him for legal help, which may push the number represented by the three US law firms to more than 2,000.

"All the contacted fishermen will get free legal service from the three US law firms," Jia added.

Jia filed lawsuits against companies allegedly responsible for the oil leak in Bohai Bay to courts in Shandong, Hainan and Tianjin last year. All were rejected.

US courts carry the principle of long-arm jurisdiction, which refers to the ability of local courts to exercise jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants.

It means that in this case the US court can decide to hear the case, even though it didn't occur in the US, Jia explained.

"It is a hard and long fight and we will fight to the end," Jia said.

In April, ConocoPhillips China, the operator of the Penglai 19-3 oilfield where the leaks occurred, agreed with the government to set up a 1.1 billion yuan fund based on estimated damages, in addition to the earlier 1 billion yuan compensation fund for the affected fishermen in Hebei and Liaoning provinces.

China National Offshore Oil Corporation, its Chinese partner, will also pay another 600 million yuan.

But no money was allocated to the other affected areas such as Shandong and Tianjin.

Jiang Xuping, a 50-year-old fisherman in Laizhou, Shandong, said the incident caused him to lose more than 1 million yuan last year, and after selling his ship he is still in debt for 50,000 yuan.

"We need an answer," Jiang said. Because there are no fish in Laizhou Bay, he left his hometown for Rizhao, also in Shandong.

In June 2011, Penglai 19-3 experienced two unrelated leaks, with initial estimates indicating that about 115 cubic meters of oil were released into the sea and 416 cu m of mineral oil mud were released onto the seabed, according to the US company.

A State Oceanic Administration report in November said the leaks polluted an area of about 6,200 square kilometers (nearly nine times the size of Singapore), including 870 square kilometers that were severely polluted.

Wang Jingshu in New York contributed to this story.