Summary Judgment in Favor of Oil Defendants Upheld Due to Lack of Control of Iranian Facilities

Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Seven, July 7, 2021

In this case, the plaintiffs brought wrongful death and survivor claims, alleging that their deceased father contracted mesothelioma through exposure to asbestos while he was an Iranian citizen working for the National Iranian Oil Company from the late 1950s to the late 1970s in facilities controlled by the defendants. The plaintiffs appealed a judgment entered by the trial court granting motions for summary judgment filed by the defendants Chevron Corporation, Chevron U.S.A. Inc., and Texaco Inc. (the Chevron defendants) and Exxon Mobil Corporation and ExxonMobil Oil Corporation (the Exxon defendants).

In their motions for summary judgment, the defendants argued that they did not owe a duty of care to the decedent because they did not own, possess, or control the facilities where the decedent was alleged to have been exposed to asbestos. The trial court held that the Chevron and Exxon defendants did not owe a duty of care to the decedent. The plaintiffs then argued on appeal that these defendants did owe the decedent a duty of care based on their predecessors’ control over the refinery and a 1954 contractual agreement (the agreement) between the Iranian government and certain oil companies, including the defendants’ predecessors. The plaintiffs also claimed that these defendants, through their predecessors, owed a duty to protect refinery workers from asbestos exposure based on a special relationship between the predecessor companies and the refinery workers arising from the agreement. Alternatively, the plaintiffs contended that the Chevron and Exxon defendants owed refinery workers a duty of care, arising from a special relationship between the defendants’ predecessors and the companies that operated the refinery. The defendants disputed that the agreement created any duty of care to workers such as the decedent.

The court found that the plaintiffs failed to raise a triable issue of fact regarding their negligence and premises liability claims, and regarding the Chevron and Exxon defendants’ ownership, possession, or control of the facilities at issue. It concluded that the oil predecessors’ ownership of 7-8% of a holding company which wholly owned the Iranian Oil Exploration and Producing Company and Iranian Oil Refining Company was not sufficient to create a duty of care as to refinery workers without evidence supporting piercing the corporate veil based on the alter ego doctrine. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the agreement created an obligation of the defendants’ predecessors to intervene in refinery management. Further, deposition testimony supported the defendants’ position that their predecessors did not exercise direct control over employees at this refinery.

The court recently decided Sabetian v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, 57 Cal.App.5th 1054 (2020), in which it held that the defendants’ predecessors did not owe a duty of care to protect refinery workers from asbestos hazards at the Abadan refinery. In that case, the court held that the plaintiffs had not established that the defendants’ predecessors exercised direct control over the day-to-day operations of the refinery. Therefore, the court applied this finding to the matter at hand, upholding the trial court’s ruling that the Chevron and Exxon defendants did not owe a duty of care to the decedent.

Ultimately, the court found that there was no evidence that the Chevron and Exxon defendants operated or controlled the Abadan refinery or the sources of asbestos at the refinery, which would have imposed on them a duty under section 1714 of the California Code to protect refinery workers such as the decedent from exposure to asbestos. Further, there was no triable issue of fact regarding whether the agreement created a special relationship between the defendants’ predecessors and the decedent. The third party beneficiary doctrine did not apply because the plaintiffs failed to establish that the motivating purpose of the contracting parties was to provide a benefit to the third party.

Finally, while the plaintiffs argued that the defendants’ predecessors had a duty to protect the decedent based on a special relationship between the defendants’ predecessors and the operating companies party to the agreement. A duty to control, warn, or protect may be based on a defendant’s relationship with either the person whose conduct needs to be controlled or with the foreseeable victim of that conduct (citing Regents of University of California v. Superior Court, 4 Cal.5th 607, 619 (2018)). Because the plaintiffs did not sufficiently show that the defendants had authority to exercise control over the facilities, the trial court properly granted summary judgment.

Read the full decision here.