Already down four jurors, the criminal trial charging Plains All American Pipeline with criminal negligence in the wake of the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill excused another alternate juror this week. An attorney was also shown the door: Judge James Herman removed Deputy Attorney General Ross Hirsch, who’s been observing the case in preparation for future civil proceedings. Hirsch was removed for speaking with a juror, an action Judge Herman deemed “totally inappropriate.” Hirsch has a broken foot; he said the juror, during a break outside the courtroom, commented on his knee scooter and the courthouse palm trees. Hirsch said his limited mobility prevented him from ending the interaction. The Plains team was more concerned that when defense attorney Gary Lincenberg pressed for more details, it was revealed Hirsch apparently also told the juror he was an environmental lawyer.
The case for Plains’ negligence rests as much on what the company did as on what it didn’t do. Either way, details have been elusive. Plains employees who have been testifying have rarely recalled specifics concerning pipeline activities, especially when they’re asked to remember as far back as 2007. One morning, Judge Herman grew seemingly frustrated with both legal teams, asking the defense team to limit interruptions and objections. Herman also advised the prosecution to ask questions of the right witness, which, considering Plains’ middle-management structure, could prove problematic — the ruptured pipeline was supervised by an operations manager, who reported to a district manager, who reported to a division manager. The jury has heard each of these employees answer nearly identical questions.
Clarification: After the court privately interviewed the juror with whom Deputy Attorney General Ross Hirsch spoke, Judge James Herman excused that juror as well.