Small city sues Shell Oil for environmental contamination. $63M. Merced County.


Water wells are contaminated in Central Valley community.

The Case

  • Case Name: City of Atwater v. Shell Oil Co., et al.
  • Court and Case Number: Merced County Superior Court / 17 CV-04188
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Friday, August 23, 2019
  • Date Action was Filed: Tuesday, January 31, 2006
  • Type of Case: Environmental
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Brian L. McCabe
  • Plaintiffs:
    City of Atwater
  • Defendants:
    Shell Oil Company
    The Dow Chemical Company
    Western Farm Service, Inc.
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $63,419,988
  • Net Verdict or Award: $63,259,988
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    All against Shell, including $10 million punitive damages.

    Dow settled during trial. Western Farm Service, Inc. (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Shell Oil Company during the relevant time period 1968-88) went through trial. The jury found no liability against Western Farm Service, Inc.

  • Punitive Damages:

    $10 million against Shell.

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 39 days, plus 3 days jury selection.
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 5 days.
  • Jury Polls: 11-1 liability, 10-2 punitive damages.
  • Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: Plaintiff motion for pre-judgment interest. Shell motion for settlement credits.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:
    Duane Miller
  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Miller Axline & Sawyer by Duane Miller, Sacramento.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    King & Spalding LLP by Tracie J. Renfroe, Houston, TX.

    Steptoe & Johnson by Cal Burnton, Chicago, IL.

    King & Spalding LLP by Megan Nishikawa, San Francisco.

The Experts

  • Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):

    Anthony Brown, hydrology, hydrogeology, Costa Mesa.

    Peter Green, groundwater and subsurface contamination, Davis.

    Kevin Berryhill, methods and costs of removing TCP from drinking water, Fresno.

  • Defendant's Technical Expert(s):

    John Wilson, hydrogeology, Socorro, NM.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    Plaintiff, the City of Atwater had eight water wells contaminated with 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP) over the regulatory Maximum Contaminant Level of 5 parts per trillion. TCP was a waste byproduct in agricultural pesticides manufactured by Dow and Shell. Atwater is a farming community in California's Central Valley, where these pesticides were applied starting in the 1940s (Shell D-D) and 1950s (Dow Telone and Telone II).

    Plaintiff's causes of action were product liability (design defect, failure to warn), negligence, nuisance and trespass. 

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    That TCP in City of Atwater drinking water wells came from Shell and Dow pesticide products.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    Defendants admitted some TCP in the water came from their products, but asserted most came from nearby Castle Air Force Base.

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:

    Contamination of drinking water wells requiring Granular Activated Carbon treatment for decades into the future. Eight of nine City of Atwater drinking water wells were contaminated with TCP over the regulatory MCL limit. 

Demands and Offers

  • Plaintiff Final Demand before Trial: $60 million from Dow and Shell per plaintiff counsel; $70 million per defense counsel.
  • Defendant Final Offer before Trial: From Dow and Shell combined – $37 million per plaintiff counsel; $47 million per defense counsel.

Additional Notes

Per defense counsel:

Shell had at least five additional technical experts beyond those listed above.