(BATTLE CREEK ENQUIRER) - Two Michigan men testified Wednesday that a 2010 oil spill into the Kalamazoo River destroyed their business and they want Enbridge Inc. to pay for it.
Charles Blakeman, Jr. of Bellevue and Robert Patterson of Mason said they were prevented from guiding disabled veterans on deer hunts in Fort Custer Recreation Area because of the spill and that they lost thousands of dollars.
But Enbridge is arguing that the company, Extreme Adventures, did not have any business before the spill and didn't lose money because of it.
The trial before Calhoun County Circuit Court Judge James Kingsley is the first involving Enbridge Energy Inc., responsible for the spill which dumped nearly 1 million gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek near Marshall and the Kalamazoo River all the way into Kalamazoo County.
About 30 cases have been filed against Enbridge, court records show, and more than 20 have already been settled without a trial. Several remain pending.
Kinglsey, who was assigned the Enbridge cases, has ruled that the company is liable for the spill and so the only issue in this and other cases is for a jury to determine if a plaintiff suffered damage and how much.
Michael Leavitt of Northville, the attorney for Extreme Adventure, told the jury he would propose a financial loss for his clients at the end of the trial, which is expected Thursday.
Blakeman testified he and his wife, Tracy, and Patterson had discussed for two years creating a nonprofit company to provide deer hunts and fishing trips for disabled veterans and other handicapped people before they formed the company in 2009.
He said he was familiar with the recreation area and spent two years learning about the tendencies of six deer herds.
They were unable to obtain grants or loans for the start-up so put in their own money to begin buying supplies.
Patterson attended a course and wrote a business plan and they obtained permits from the State of Michigan, built deer blinds and began soliciting clients through advertising and visiting the Battle Creek Veterans Affairs Medical Center and disabled veterans and hunting groups.
Blakeman said they expected to have clients for the fall hunting season beginning Oct. 1, 2010, but the July 26, 2010, spill changed that plan.
"The oil spill shut us down," he said. "I was told no hunting along the river. And the deer scattered and they were not in the rec area. The oil spill destroyed our basic plan. It shot us down."
The company expected to have 152 clients in 2010, Blakeman said, although they did not have any contracts with hunters at the time of the spill.
They only had five clients that year and they were employees of Enbridge. They had three paid hunts in 2011.
"Business was crippled dramatically," Leavitt said in his opening statement. "They had readied the company for a successful hunting season in 2010. But the deer left and the pilot program was for Fort Custer and there was no time to ready other state parks. They had a great idea to help people and all they wanted was a chance to help disabled veterans and handicapped people to do what they loved to do before their disability."
Enbridge attorney Michael Vartanian of Detroit called the idea a noble one but argued the spill did not cost the company money.
"It is up to you to determine if Extreme Adventures was damaged by the oil," he said. "Did they lose business because of the oil? No property was damaged and they didn't lose revenue."
He said the plaintiff's case is based on speculation, conjecture and guessing.
"You will not hear any evidence of lost business," he said. "There was not business before 2010 and it had no track record of any success. It was a noble idea, but they must prove there was a loss of business."
He told the jury that the recreation area was open for hunting with only the immediate area along the river closed. He said the founders of the company were hoping to build a strong business but had not done it before the spill.
"They did not lose any business because of the oil spill because there was no business to lose," Vartanian said.