A South Bay Municipal Court judge on Monday dismissed most criminal charges against Mobil Oil and two top refinery officials stemming from an explosion at the firm's Torrance refinery that killed one man and injured two others on July 15, 1988.
Judge Thomas Allen ruled that Mobil and its executives were not culpable for misdemeanor violations of the state safety code because they did not directly employ the victims, who worked for Cal Cat Chemical Co., a Mobil subcontractor.
"We have always maintained that the charges were totally inappropriate," Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti said.
But David Guthman, chief of the environmental crimes unit of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said the dismissals hinged on a narrow technical issue and will be appealed to Superior Court.
"The crux is the definition of the word 'employer,' whether it is only the immediate employer or others in the chain of employment," Guthman said. "If we agreed with the issue, we would not have filed the case in the first place. If we thought the court was correct, we would live with it. But we are taking it to a higher court."
Guthman added that the judge's decision does not affect a continuing investigation into the possibility of filing felony manslaughter charges.
"We're going to continue to look at it," he said.
The dismissed misdemeanor charges included six counts each that refinery manager Wyman Robb and Tom Gregory, then the second-ranking executive at the facility, willfully violated state safety standards, and one count each that Robb and Gregory induced others to violate the safety code.
The dismissals do not affect identical charges against three employees of Cal Cat Chemical Co. of Benicia, which Mobil employed as a subcontractor to process sludge from water-storage tanks.
Also pending are two charges alleging that Gregory is responsible for Mobil employees trying to prohibit city officials from investigating at the scene.
"Mobil believes that these charges will likewise be found to be meritless," Carbonetti said.
In the accident, Cal Cat Chemical employee Winston Alexander Jones, 30, of Harbor City died instantly when the tank he was on top of exploded. David Moustofi, 32, of Long Beach, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 75% of his body. Jerry Lekberg, 41, of Oakland was burned over 5% of his body.