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Could negligence have caused the death of a 54-year-old grandfather on the first day of summer 2011? A three-year-old wrongful death lawsuit alleges Chevron was negligent when it employed a well-stimulation technique known as cyclic steaming, or “huff and puff” that resulted in a massive sinkhole that swallowed Robert David “Dave” Taylor on the morning of June 21, 2011.  The lawsuit also claims Chevron failed to properly plug a nearby broken well it owns, contributing even further to the hole’s formation.

The Accident

According to Cal-OSHA investigators, Taylor, a Chevron construction supervisor, was retrieving pieces of culvert with two co-workers when they noticed discoloration in the soil near the site of a problem well. The agency went on to say in a August 2011 report, that without warning, Taylor fell into the previously unknown sinkhole that was filled with steam, water, and oil as hot as 190 degrees. One of Taylor’s co-workers put his arm into the hole to try to reach Taylor, but was unable to.  By the time one of the co-workers had retrieved a pipe to pull Taylor out, he was gone from view. Emergency rescuers needed 17 hours to recover Taylor’s body. The county coroner’s office was not able to identify what specifically killed him. Chevron was fined $350 by Cal-OSHA for failure to put in writing certain safety procedures necessary for the protection of its employees from the hazards of “excessive subsidence movement in the ground.”

Nearby Construction Work

During the months prior to Taylor’s death, Chevron had paid for underground construction work to be done near the sinkhole site. The drain the company installed was designed to address concerns about “surface expressions” in the nearby areas.

Broken Well

State oil regulators focused on a nearby Chevron well that was broken and might have caused nearby cyclic steaming to migrate underground and cause surface expressions. Chevron has acknowledged the broken well, and also that it had already spent close to $2 million to plug it before finally declaring the effort unsuccessful. Chevron also said, that when it was deemed unsuccessful it quit injecting steam within 300 feet of the well. This was in 2008.

Family Lawyer

Daniel Rodriguez, the lawyer representing Taylor’s wife, son, and daughter’s wrongful death suit, says, the formation wasn’t a sinkhole, but an eruption.He claims a geyser-like eruption had taken place earlier the same morning on a nearby property. And also that there had been 16 similar events prior to Taylor’s death. The lawsuit initially targeted several Chevron contracted companies because California law generally shields employers like Chevron from wrongful death suits filed by their workers’ families.

Recently, Superior Court Judge Sidney P. Chapin rejected Rodriguez’s request to consolidate two lawsuits. The wrongful death trial has been scheduled to start Sept. 21, 2015.

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