RICHMOND (CBS SF) — Three Bay Area attorneys filed a lawsuit against Chevron on Wednesday, claiming the oil company was “grossly negligent” in its handling of maintenance leading up to the massive Aug. 6 fire at its Richmond refinery that sent thousands of local residents to hospitals.

Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris teamed with San Francisco-based lawyers Matthew Kumin and Patrick Goggin to file the lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of nine Richmond residents, including three children, who have allegedly suffered illnesses, emotional distress and other hardships due to the fire.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Burris told reporters and local residents that Chevron could have avoided the fire and thick smoke that sent several thousand people to the hospital with respiratory illnesses, headaches, nausea and other symptoms.

“This is a willful disregard, in many ways, of a dangerous situation,” he said.

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The lawsuit alleges that Chevron could have avoided the explosion and fire sparked by a leaky oil pipe if they had implemented “proper safety measures and a timely response.”

Burris said Chevron’s “failure to act immediately with urgency when the leak was initially discovered was unconscionable. Chevron’s conduct needlessly placed the health of thousands at risk.”

The three attorneys said they hope the lawsuit will require Chevron to beef up safety measures to prevent another accidental release of pollutants.

North Richmond resident Charles Simmons, 67, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said he wants to see Chevron held accountable for the fire that caused himself and his two young children to suffer a range of persistent symptoms. He said that he and his family have suffered respiratory symptoms since moving to North Richmond two years ago.

“Since we’ve been in this area, we’ve had a tremendous bout of coughing that hasn’t stopped,” he said.

Other plaintiffs named in the lawsuit also allegedly suffered from illnesses prompted by the fire including problems breathing, wheezing, fever and a seizure, according to the complaint.

Since the fire, about 8,800 local residents have filed liability claims to reimburse medical fees and property damage through a process set up by Chevron days after the blaze, according to Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie. Some 7,500 people have filed claims via a phone hotline, while 1,300 have filed a claim in person at a help center set up by Chevron that opened last week at the Nevin Community Center.

Chevron officials say they hope to reimburse the claims within a month.

The attorneys who filed the suit against the oil giant Wednesday cautioned residents who have filed such claims not to sign any waiver that might prevent them from pursuing further legal action against Chevron.

Ritchie said again Wednesday that Chevron is not asking anyone filing a claim to give up the right to a potential lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s investigation into the refinery fire is on hold while engineers work to make the site of the accident safe for investigators.

At a news conference Tuesday, CSB Managing Director Daniel Horowitz said the leaky steel pipe that led to the Aug. 6 fire and was a “near disaster” for workers on site could have been replaced in November. He said investigators planned to find out why the pipe was not replaced during a round of routine maintenance and why the pipe ultimately failed.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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