SEATTLE — Federal lawyers are trying to delay the trial of two lawsuits over a fuel pipeline rupture and firestorm in which three people died, saying it could interfere with a criminal case.
The lawsuits against Olympic Pipe Line Co. were filed by relatives of those who died in the fire, which exploded along Whatcom Creek in Bellingham on June 10, 1999. Trial is set for April 22 in Whatcom County Superior Court.
Lawyers for Olympic Pipe Line as well as for the families that filed the lawsuits said they would oppose a delay.
On Thursday, assistant U.S. attorney Lawrence Lincoln told U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein that Olympic Pipe Line lawyers could gain an unfair edge if the civil case is heard first, because they could question witnesses who will be called in the criminal case.
Normally, the defense has only limited pretrial access to government witnesses in federal criminal cases.
Lincoln said the government will soon ask Superior Court Judge Stephen Mura to delay the civil trial and halt pretrial questioning of potential witnesses because of the potential for a "blurring of lines" between the cases.
A lawyer for Olympic Pipe Line said such a delay could run as long as a year.
"That would be a pretty cruel result for the families," Rothstein said. "I can see why Judge Mura wouldn’t do that."
She said she would set a date for the criminal trial after Mura decides whether to postpone the civil case.
Olympic Pipe Line, three Olympic officials and Equilon Pipeline Co., part-owner of Olympic and operator of the Olympic pipeline system at the time of the rupture, were named in a seven-count indictment Sept. 13.
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