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Gbarabe v. Chevron Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. California

August 5, 2016

NATTO IYELA GBARABE, Plaintiff,
v.
CHEVRON CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO COMPEL, DENYING PLAINTIFF’S ADMINISTRATIVE MOTIONS TO FILE UNDER SEAL AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS RE: DKT. NOS. 138, 139, 144, 148

          SUSAN ILLSTON United States District Judge

         Defendant's motion to compel and plaintiff's motion for sanctions are scheduled for a hearing on August 12, 2016. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), the Court determines that these matters are appropriate for resolution without oral argument, and hereby VACATES the hearing. The case management conference set for 3:00 p.m. on August 12 remains on calendar.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 16, 2012, an explosion occurred on the KS Endeavor (Panama) drilling rig, which was drilling for natural gas in the North Apoi Field off of the coast of Nigeria. The explosion caused a fire that burned for forty-six days. Dkt. No. 99 ¶ 1. (Fourth Amd. Compl. or “FAC”). Plaintiff alleges that the KS Endeavor was operated by KS Drilling under the management of Chevron Nigeria Limited, which in turn acted at defendant Chevron Corporation's direction. Id. ¶ 2.

         Plaintiff Natta Iyela Gbarabe is a fisherman who lives in a coastal community of Bayelsa State in Nigeria who depends on fishing for his primary method of earning a living. Id. ¶ 10(i). The FAC alleges that plaintiff suffered “personal loss by way of an almost total loss of yield in the waters customarily fished by plaintiff after the KS Endeavor rig explosion and 46-day fire, as well as damage to fishing equipment.” Id. The FAC also alleges that “Plaintiff further suffered health issues from the effects of the polluted air and water caused by the gas rig explosion of the KS Endeavour, which included diarrhea and vomiting.” Id. Plaintiff seeks to represent “a prospective class comprising individuals who live and work in communities and co-operatives located in the Niger Delta region of southern Nigeria and identifies presently as comprising some 12, 600 individuals spread across communities at or near the coastal waters of Bayelsa State, Nigeria.” Id. ¶ 4. The FAC seeks compensation and punitive damages arising out of Chevron’s alleged gross negligence, willful misconduct, negligence per se, acts of nuisance, and breaches of Nigerian law. Id. ¶ 3.

         This lawsuit was filed on January 13, 2014. After several rounds of motion practice, plaintiff filed the fourth amended complaint on September 29, 2015. After several extensions of the schedule, plaintiff filed a motion for class certification on April 8, 2016. The class certification motion is scheduled for a hearing on December 9, 2016.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Defendant's motion to compel

         Chevron requests that plaintiff be ordered to produce “documents reflecting or relating to the actual or potential financing or funding of the prosecution of this litigation” and to comply with Civil Local Rule 3-15. Chevron contends that plaintiff’s funding agreement and related documents are relevant to determining adequacy of representation in this putative class action. Chevron argues that when the Court rules on the upcoming class certification motion, the Court must examine “the resources that counsel will commit to representing the class, ” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 23(g)(1)(A)(iv), and Chevron argues that “this requirement is especially important in a case like this, involving claims that are likely to be expensive to investigate, prepare for trial, and try.” Dkt. No. 139 at 1-2. Chevron notes that plaintiff does not dispute that his counsel, who appear to be solo practitioners, are dependent on outside funding to prosecute this case. Chevron states that after initially refusing to produce the requested documents, plaintiff produced a heavily redacted copy of a litigation funding agreement, and that the redactions make it impossible for Chevron to assess whether counsel can commit adequate resources to the class.

         Plaintiff’s opposition concedes the relevance of the funding agreement to the class certification adequacy determination, and plaintiff does not assert that the agreement is privileged. Plaintiff states, “Plaintiff and his counsel have no personal objection to providing the requested information, contrary to defendant’s assertions. However, plaintiff and his counsel are under a contractual obligation to preserve the confidentiality of the funder’s identity, as well as the terms of the agreement, absent a Court order or a determination that it would be prudent to do so.” Dkt. No. 143 at 2. Plaintiff proposes submitting an unredacted copy of the litigation funding agreement to the Court for in camera review, along with “an executed declaration by the funder’s Chief Investment Officer which addresses each item identified by defendant in their motion. In this manner, plaintiff can meet the funder’s confidentiality desire while satisfying the Court and defendant as to the adequacy of funding for this litigation.” Id. Plaintiff’s opposition only addresses the litigation funding agreement and does not address Chevron’s request for other documents regarding plaintiff’s funding.

         The Court concludes that under the circumstances of this case, the litigation funding agreement is relevant to the adequacy determination and should be produced to defendant. The confidentiality provision of the funding agreement does not prohibit plaintiff from producing the agreement, and instead simply states that “if at any time such a requirement [to produce the agreement] arises or to do so would be prudent . . . the lawyers will promptly take all such steps as reasonably practicable to make such disclosure . . . .”[1] Plaintiff’s proposal for in camera review of the agreement by the Court is inadequate because it would deprive Chevron of the ability to make its own assessment and arguments regarding the funding agreement and its impact, if any, on plaintiff’s ability to adequately represent the class.[2]

         Accordingly, the Court GRANTS Chevron’s motion to compel and orders plaintiff to produce the litigation funding agreement to Chevron. On the present record, it is not clear whether there are other documents responsive to Chevron’s document request, and if any documents do exist, whether those documents (such as documents related to “potential financing”) are relevant and discoverable. To the extent there are documents aside from the litigation funding agreement that are responsive to Chevron’s document request, the Court directs the parties to engage in an in person meet and confer session regarding those documents. If the parties are unable to resolve any disputes after the meet and confer session, the parties shall submit a joint letter brief to the Court.[3]

         II. Plaintiff's motion for sanctions

         Plaintiff seeks costs and sanctions in the amount of at least $211, 988, which is the amount that plaintiff states he incurred as a result of an aborted inspection and sampling trip by plaintiff’s experts in December 2015. Plaintiff states that prior to the December 11, 2015 inspection trip, plaintiff’s counsel received assurances from Chevron that plaintiff’s experts would be able access, inspect, and take samples from the site of the KS Endeavor explosion, but that when plaintiff’s experts arrived at the site they were refused access by Chevron’s Funiwa Control Station. Plaintiff asserts that the experts “were forced to retreat from the site inspection and return to port, some 19 hours boat ride from the rig site, after being forced to idle in the water for a complete day. The return to harbor was prompted by the fall of night, ...


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