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Local Fishermen File Class-Action Lawsuit Against Oil Company Over Refugio Spill

The latest complaint on behalf of six plaintiffs seeks more than $5 million in damages

Goleta resident Sarah Rathbone owns Community Seafood LLC, which buys fish directly from local fishermen and sells it to consumers. Rathbone is part of a class-action lawsuit filed against Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the May 19 oil spill off the Gaviota coast.
Goleta resident Sarah Rathbone owns Community Seafood LLC, which buys fish directly from local fishermen and sells it to consumers. Rathbone is part of a class-action lawsuit filed against Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the May 19 oil spill off the Gaviota coast. (Contributed photo)

Another class-action lawsuit has been filed against the oil company responsible for the May 19 spill off the Gaviota coast, as more local fishermen worry about long-lasting harm on business.

The latest complaint was filed in U.S. District Court last week on behalf of six plaintiffs who all rely on clean Santa Barbara County waters, including Sarah Rathbone, a Goleta resident and owner of Santa Barbara's Community Seafood LLC.

The lawsuit participants, who live between Santa Margarita and Oxnard, allege that Plains All American Pipeline negligently operated the pipeline, which corroded and lacked an automatic shut-off valve and leaked more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean near Refugio State Beach before crews stopped it.

Because of the losses they’ve sustained — and the hit they expect to take long term — they’ve filed suit against Plains, asking for more than $5 million in damages, said Matthew Preusch, an attorney in the Santa Barbara office of Seattle-based Keller Rohrback LLP, which filed the complaint along with San Francisco-based Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

The same law firms already filed a class-action suit against Plains on behalf of Santa Barbara sea urchin diver and near-shore fisherman Stace Cheverez.

Keller Rohrback also represented fishermen and others after Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, winning a $5 billion judgment, according to the firm.

“We continue to hear from fishermen and other businesses who have been affected by the oil spill,” Preusch said.

Beachfront homeowners have filed a class-action suit, too.

The latest complaint alleges that Rathbone’s Community Seafood business, which buys fresh fish from local fishermen and delivers it to consumers, lost more than $6,500 in revenue in just the first week after the spill.

One of her suppliers, Santa Margarita fishermen Keith and Tiffani Andrews, also joined the lawsuit because the married couple almost exclusively trawls for sea cucumbers in the area that was closed to fishing following the spill.

Santa Barbara native Cort Pierson works on a variety of local boats, most recently fishing for sea urchin. His share of the catch — 15 percent — has gone down significantly since the oil spill.

Also included in the lawsuit were Joseph Viens, a Carpinteria resident who owns ATMs at state parks and beaches that had to close after the spill; Josh Chancer, an Oxnard resident who teaches high school history but fishes commercially during the summer months; and Weihai Zhueng, a Los Angeles County resident who for the past five years has run a business buying, processing and exporting sea cucumbers from Santa Barbara.

“Mr. Zhueng chose to start his business here because sea cucumbers from Santa Barbara are highly sought after, and command a premium price in the international market,” the lawsuit states. “As the image of clean blue waters in California is tarnished by pictures and videos of oil coating beaches, dolphins, and birds, there is a significant, concrete risk buyers may shy away from purchasing sea cucumber caught here. In fact, Mr. Zhueng’s past buyers and potential buyers are already asking Mr. Zhueng about the quality and safety of sea cucumbers caught here.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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