Case Study: Creating Order Amid the Chaos of a Mass Environmental Tort
By Wayne Nitti
In late October 2015, during a routine inspection, employees of Southern California Gas Company found an old valve leaking gas from an underground well near Porter Ranch, less than 30 miles outside of Los Angeles. That well ultimately released 100,000 tons of methane, becoming the largest such incident in US history. Area residents reported nosebleeds, nausea and vomiting, and on November 23, plaintiffs’ attorneys brought the first class action complaint against the gas company and its parent, Sempra Energy, alleging negligence, among other things. A week later, acting on an early agreement among counsel, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kenneth Freeman ordered that Case Anywhere handle electronic service and establish an online platform for “case management, document retrieval and case organization.” He directed attorneys to use the message board feature of our Litigation Hub to ensure “expeditious, efficient and economical communication by and amongst counsel,” and noted that the Court planned to use the online communication tool as well.
Judge Freeman’s swift order on electronic service and case management recognized the potential for the gas leak to become a sprawling tort, and represented a proactive step in ensuring that the litigation would unfold in an orderly and professional manner. And while his role in the case turned out to be short lived, our involvement has been continuous. Indeed, the coordinated proceeding now known as the “Southern California Gas Leak Cases” serves as a powerful case study on how a sophisticated online case management platform can bring order to the chaos of a massive environmental tort.
Since early 2016, when California’s Judicial Council approved coordination, the number of lawsuits has swelled from 102 to more than 370. The coordinated proceeding, now under Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann Jones, has morphed into one of California’s largest litigations ever, involving some 38,000 individual and business plaintiffs. Along the way, Case Anywhere has worked closely with lead plaintiffs’ attorneys from Kiesel Law, and defense counsel for the gas company, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, among others, in adapting our flexible architecture to address critical and time-sensitive needs of the proceeding. At the parties’ request, we’ve also created a unique file structure to accommodate related but separate shareholder derivative actions and insurance-related claims.
Through our litigation hub, some 900 legal professionals have access to over 2,800 proceeding-related documents, all of which are accessible anywhere, anytime. Case Anywhere has continuously updated the service list. Our platform has been utilized to serve filed documents as well as discovery requests and responses, and it’s functioned as a key conduit for case-related information to private parties and governmental litigants. It’s also proven an indispensable tool for the court, which relies on our platform for issuing and clarifying orders, scheduling, and more.
Absent our system, the additional costs and complications involved in managing this proceeding would be enormous. And it continues to evolve. Last August, for example, the State Attorney General’s office and other government agencies announced a $119.5 million dollar settlement, which included civil penalties. Less than a month later, the court added two new suits to the coordinated proceeding.
“Case Anywhere is user friendly and understands the needs of complex litigation, even in a case with almost 200 involved law firms,” stated Mariana McConnell, a partner at lead plaintiffs’ firm Kiesel Law, describing her experience with our service in this proceeding. “Case Anywhere is a true partner in litigation.”