Payday Finally Arrives for Firm Involved in Refinery Litigation

by Amanda Bronstad

Ending a dispute resulting from the handling of litigation following explosions in 1992 and 1996 at Texaco's Wilmington oil refinery, a Superior Court judge has awarded $5.8 million in attorney's fees to Davis & Heubeck LLP.

An April 5 order by Judge Ricardo Torres released the funds, which had been held in escrow for nearly three years.

Litigation over damages from the explosions has been marred by internecine legal battles.

Joel Freis, a sole practitioner in Santa Monica, took over the case on behalf of thousands of claimants in 1995 when the original attorneys were charged with insurance fraud. (They were later acquitted.) In 1996, when the second explosion occurred, Freis brought in Davis & Heubeck as co-counsel to handle much of the litigation, according to Davis & Heubeck's trial brief filed in the courts.

The firm sued Freis a year later, claiming he settled multiple personal injury and property damage suits against Texaco without its knowledge.

Freis received $3 million in the "secret" settlement, while the courts held about $6 million in fees, said Gregory Gorman, partner at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble & Mallory LLP representing Davis & Heubeck.

"I think it is rare to have this much litigation over attorneys' fees," Gorman said. "These circumstances are very rare, where you have one attorney who's paid quite a bit of money and there's a trial for the rest of the money."

Davis & Heubeck still has a lawsuit pending against Texaco for interference with a contract and fraud, Gorman said.

Freis and his attorney, Louis Krass, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Davis & Heubeck has already been awarded $8.8 million in a separate judgment against Freis. All the plaintiff's claims against Texaco for the oil refinery explosions were settled in 1999.

Planning Moves

Making his first move to reshape the Central Area Planning Commission, Mayor James Hahn has appointed two attorneys to the five-member board.

Allan Abshez of Irell & Manella LLP and Young Kim of Kim Joo & Associates were named to the commission, which reviews development and land-use proposals and appeals in Beverly Center, Beverly-Fairfax, Wilshire, Hollywood and downtown.

Kim is a criminal and immigration lawyer, but has experience in civil litigation over land use disputes.

Abshez, a land use attorney, has represented developers in The Grove at Farmers Market, 20th Century Fox's studio expansion, the J. Paul Getty Fine Arts Center and Regatta Condominiums in Marina del Rey. He has also been instrumental in developing "Nighttime Broadway" in downtown's historic core.

Abshez was previously on the Miracle Mile North Historic Preservation Overlay Zone Board, which is overseen by the Central Area Planning Commission.

"I have a lot of involvement and have a lot of policy knowledge," Abshez said. "I've been involved in the critical issues facing commissions like how to generate more housing, how to address commercial growth and traffic development. Those kinds of policy issues are an important part of my practice representing developers."

Entrepreneur? No

The recession has lawyers staying home.

Eight-four percent of lawyers in a recent survey said they would not start their own business, even if they had the necessary capital.

The survey, conducted by The Affiliates, a Menlo Park-based research firm for the legal industry, found only 16 percent would start their own firms. The survey was given to 200 lawyers from among the nation's firms.

Staff reporter Amanda Bronstad can be reached at (323) 549-5225 ext. 225, or at

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