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National Crime Victim Law Institute

United States v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., Crim. Action No. C-06-563, 2012 WL 4068675 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 14, 2012) (slip copy)

September 19, 2012

A jury convicted corporate defendants CITGO Petroleum Corporation and CITGO Refining and Chemicals Company, L.P. (CITGO), of illegally operating two large tanks in a Texas refinery without first installing emission control devices as required by the Clean Air Act.  As a result of this crime, members of a residential community adjacent to the refinery were exposed to noxious chemical air emissions, including more than 300 community members for whom the government sought victim status under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, 18 U.S.C. §3771 (CVRA).  The district court held a hearing on the issue, during which it heard testimony from a representative sample of the community-member victims who recited a number of health conditions, including burning eyes, bad taste in the mouth, nose burning, sore throat, skin rashes, shortness of breath, vomiting, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and headaches.  However, the court found it of “key importance that the health symptoms complained of [were] common symptoms” with “many potential causes,” some of which are “difficult to prove” in light of a number of the victims’ advanced ages, medical conditions, and habits.  Because proof of causation on the record was “inconclusive,” the court granted defendants’ motion to exclude from sentencing the community-member victims identified by the government.  Two months before sentencing, the community-member victims, represented by counsel, filed their own motion to be recognized as “crime victims” and to exercise their right to be heard at sentencing.   The district court denied the motion as untimely, and the community-member victims successfully sought a writ of mandamus from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which directed the district court to hear the arguments raised in the community-member victims’ motion for crime victim status. 

Upon further review, the district court granted the community-member victims’ motion for “crime victim” status under the CVRA.  The district court explained that it was now “persuaded that it applied the incorrect legal standard when it determined that the Community Members must provide documentary medical evidence … in order to qualify as victims under the CVRA[,]” and instead found “ that testimony by the Community Members … [about the symptoms] is sufficient to constitute ‘harm’ under the CVRA.”  The district court also addressed the causation requirement, finding that but for CITGO’s failure to use proper emission controls on the tanks, the community-member victims would not have suffered the harm.  The court then granted the community member-victims’ requests to deliver oral impact statements at sentencing, to amend presentence investigation reports to include additional victim impact statements, and to submit a written sentencing memorandum regarding restitution. 

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