Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Remands for New Hearing in Criminal Court on Restitution but Says Any Recovery Must Stem Directly From Company’s Three-Day Delay in Reporting Leak to Authorities
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday provided a faint victory, at best, to more than 7,000 petitioners who sought restitution in a criminal proceeding for losses arising from the massive 2015 Porter Ranch gas leak, with the justices saying that the only recompense that can be sought is for damage resulting from the Southern California Gas Company’s three-day delay in reporting the leak.
“[N]o injustice results from any of the legal conclusions we have reached,” Acting Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Grimes of Div. Eight said, explaining:
“Petitioners continue to have recourse against defendant in numerous pending civil suits and class actions, in a civil court specifically designed to handle complex proceedings.”
Criminal charges against SoCalGas, brought by the Office of Los Angeles County District Attorney, were resolved through a plea bargain. The defendant pled no contest to failing, during the period from Oct. 23-26, 2015, to report the release of a hazardous material to authorities, a misdemeanor, in violation of a Health and Safety Code provision; other charges, including discharging contaminants, were dropped.
Over a protest by residents of the area of the leak, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan S. Rosenfield approved the plea bargain and imposed a $4 million fine. The judge saw no basis for restitution, declaring:
“The delay in the defendant’s required notifications to various authorities upon discovery of the gas leak did not cause the damage occasioned by the leak; the damage would have occurred with or without the timely notification.”
Appellate Division Opinion
The Appellate Division of the Superior Court agreed. In an opinion denying a petition for a writ of mandate, Judge Tony L. Richardson wrote:
“The Victims offered no evidence in their written motion, nor at the hearing on the motion, and they made no satisfactory offer of proof to support the claim, made for the first time at the hearing, that they were damaged by defendant’s three-day delay in reporting the leak. They did assert at the hearing that, had defendant reported the leak ‘immediately,’ the health department would have ‘red tagged’ the homes and then ‘all of this damage’ could have been prevented. Notably, however, the Victims did not elaborate on what damages were specifically attributable to defendant’s delay in reporting the leak, as opposed to the leak itself.”
He said Rosenfield’s “finding that the Victims did not establish a causal link between that criminal conduct” of which SoCalGas was convicted “and their damages was supported by substantial evidence.”
Grimes said in yesterday’s opinion that crime victims who are denied restitution, while having no right to appeal, do have the right to seek relief in mandate, as the petitioners did. She continued:
“Here, however, the trial court did not fail in its duty when it refused to order restitution for all losses caused by the gas leak. We reject the contention that the release of air contaminants was ‘encompassed in’ the reporting failure of which defendant was convicted. We also decline to extend the right to restitution to dismissed charges that are ‘transactionally related’ to the crime of which defendant was convicted.”
“And although we find no error in the trial court’s conclusion that there was no evidence or proffer of evidence to establish that defendant’s failure to report the gas leak for three days was a substantial factor in causing the harm victims suffered from the gas leak, …we do remand for a hearing on whether petitioners can prove damages from the three-day delay in reporting the leak, as charged in the criminal complaint.”
A remand is required, she said, because “there was enough confusion about the scope of the sentencing hearing to warrant a new hearing on the issue of restitution only for damages occasioned by the three-day delay in reporting the leak,” noting:
“[N]either the court nor counsel clarified in advance the proper legal parameters of the hearing, that is, whether proof would be considered for all losses stemming from the leak itself, or whether proof would be limited to damages stemming only from the three-day delay in reporting the leak.”
The case is Crump v. Superior Court, B292786.
Attorneys on appeal were Margaret M. Grignon and Anne M. Grignon of Grignon Law Firm, R. Rex Parris and Patricia K. Oliver of Parris Law Firm, Brian Panish and Robert Glassman of Panish Shea & Boyle and Brentford Ferreira for the petitioners; Deputy District Attorneys Phyllis C. Asayama and Cassandra Thorp for the People; and James J. Dragna, David L. Schrader, Yardena Zwang-Weissman, Thomas M. Peterson, and Nathan Hochman of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Manuel A. Abascal of Latham & Watkins for SoCal.
On Feb. 25, the Los Angeles Superior Court approved $119.5 million settlement by SoCal with various governmental agencies.
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