In a total victory for Arkema Inc. and company executives, a Harris County judge has thrown out all remaining criminal charges relating to an incident that occurred at the Arkema plant in Crosby during flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.
The decision to find the company and its executives not guilty came following a hearing before Judge Belinda Hill at NRG Arena in Houston on Thursday.
"The Harris County District Attorney tried to criminalize a natural disaster for political purposes. Today, justice is finally done,” said attorney Rusty Hardin of Rusty Hardin & Associates, who along with firm partner Jennifer Brevorka represented Arkema in the case. “The state’s incompetence in handling this criminal case put Arkema and three of its executives through three years of excruciating stress. In my career, I have never seen such rampant prosecutorial misconduct and ignorance in handling a criminal case.”
“It was incredibly irresponsible and inappropriate for the DA to have retained outside special prosecutors who had never tried a criminal case nor served as prosecutors. I salute and deeply believe in the profession of prosecution. But it should never be placed in the hands of lawyers who have never been a prosecutor trained in the duty to seek justice rather than a conviction at all costs. The fate of the criminally accused and the fate of the fair administration of justice call for prosecutors who recognize their ethical and moral duties,” he said.
Arkema and its executives were charged following the 2017 hurricane, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston and the surrounding area. More than six feet of water flooded Arkema’s Crosby plant and cut off power to the refrigerated warehouses where organic peroxides were stored. Arkema’s heroic ride out crew transferred the product to refrigerated trailers, but even that was unsuccessful. After they were forced to abandon the site and were taken by boat over six-foot fences, the fire department and law enforcement praised Arkema for cooperating and doing everything it could to warn and protect the public as Arkema waited for the product to ignite. It was a day and a half after those warnings that a fire did break out.
The company, CEO Richard Rowe, Crosby Facility Manager Leslie Comardelle, and former company Vice President Michael Keough all saw their charges dropped, either by a midtrial request of the prosecutors or by a directed verdict from the judge. The charges the prosecutors themselves asked to be dismissed were the ridiculous and unprecedented charges accusing the company and Mr. Keough, who was in Pennsylvania during Hurricane Harvey, of reckless “assault by words.”
“As a measure of how the jury reacted to the evidence, at the conclusion of the trial, jurors gave the individual defendants an ovation of applause,” Mr. Hardin said. “Jurors told our team that they would have quickly found all the defendants not guilty if they had been able to vote.”
“We applaud the courage of Judge Belinda Hill in issuing the directed verdicts in three of the five charges. Judge Hill ruled that the state had presented no evidence of guilt under their indictment and that, as a matter of law, a verdict of not guilty was necessary.”
Finally, the lead trial lawyer had specific praise for the jury. “It speaks so highly of our civil justice system that this jury first heard testimony for a month, then took a six-month hiatus because of the pandemic and then — all 12 jurors and one alternate — returned, only to endure social distancing and a trial held in a convention hall and never lost focus or their sense of commitment.”
In addition to Mr. Hardin and Ms. Brevorka, Arkema was represented by Letitia Quinones of Quinones & Associates, and Derek Hollingsworth of Drumheller Hollingsworth & Monthy. The other defendants were represented by Dan Cogdell and Cordt Akers of Cogdell Law Firm, Tim Johnson and Nick Dickerson of Locke Lord, and Paul Nugent and Heather Peterson of Nugent & Peterson. The in-house team of Bill Hamel, Lisa Brody and Eric Tilles also represented Arkema.
LCA Senior Fellow and 2017 President Rusty Hardin is one of only four attorneys in the U.S. and the only attorney in Texas honored as a 2018 Global Elite Thought Leader in litigation by the international legal research firm Who’s Who Legal. He is a Senior Fellow and 2017 President of the Litigation Counsel of America (LCA) and a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), the International Academy of Trial Lawyers (IATL), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). The London-based Chambers recognized Hardin as a top U.S. trial lawyer and a Texas Band 1 lawyer in both general commercial litigation and white collar criminal defense, and Best Lawyers recognized him in both commercial litigation and white collar criminal defense and named him 2019 Lawyer of the Year in Houston for white collar criminal defense. Benchmark Litigation selected Hardin as a Litigation Star in Texas in General Commercial Litigation. In 2016, the firm was selected as a Litigation Department of the Year honoree by the publishers of Texas Lawyer, and Hardin was selected as a member of America’s Top 100 Attorneys. Hardin has been named one of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America by The National Law Journal and one of “The 25 Greatest Texas Lawyers of the Past Quarter-Century” by Texas Lawyer.
Rusty Hardin & Associates, LLP manages a wide variety of cases and appeals, focusing primarily on civil matters, including complex commercial litigation, contract disputes, and claims involving serious personal injury. The firm also engages in a substantial white collar criminal defense practice. The firm’s clients have been as varied as Arthur Andersen in both its civil and criminal cases; Dow Jones, for whom the firm won a new trial in the face of the largest libel verdict in history; the J. Howard Marshall II estate in the nationally-followed probate trial involving claims made by Anna Nicole Smith; ExxonMobil Corporation; Rice University; Las Vegas Sands; and a lengthy roster of professional athletes that includes Wade Boggs, Warren Moon, Calvin Murphy, Adrian Peterson, and Roger Clemens.