About 20 gasoline station operators in the New Orleans area are suing Exxon Mobil Corp., alleging the oil company is scheming to force them out of business.
The dispute centers on the difference between the company's contract with the station operators and with Retif Oil & Fuel Inc., a Louisiana gasoline wholesaler. Retif also is a defendant in the case.
Both the independent operators and Retif sell Exxon gasoline under the Exxon brand. But Retif pays less for the fuel, a policy the station operators say constitutes price discrimination and violates Louisiana antitrust law.
The case is in the evidence discovery phase after being filed in 1999 and comes during a time when oil companies face increased competition in the retail gasoline industry from low-cost providers.
Last week, a federal jury ordered Exxon Mobil to pay $500 million to 10,000 gasoline station owners nationwide who claimed they were overcharged for fuel for 12 years. The company plans to appeal. That ruling affects some of the plaintiffs in the Louisiana suit, but the two cases are not related, attorneys said.
Exxon acknowledges charging the dealers more than Retif, but said in a statement that "we scrupulously adhere to all applicable laws and regulations."
Al Alfano, a Washington attorney representing Retif, said the independent operators' case ignores the fact that his client pays transportation costs, maintenance and other expenses related to wholesale gasoline. Retif sells Exxon gasoline to about 15 stores in Louisiana, mostly in rural areas.
"It's a very simplistic view of people who don't understand the economics of the industry," Alfano said. "It's one of those cases of `Let's get the little guy in front of the jury against the big company Exxon."'
Some of the plaintiffs are longtime Exxon dealers. Under a typical arrangement, the operators rent the land and equipment from Exxon and purchase their gasoline from the company. The stations that have filed the lawsuit are barred from buying gasoline from Retif.
Bob Lawless, who has operated an independent Exxon station in New Orleans since 1973, said independents are charged 10 cents to 15 cents more per gallon than to Retif. He said his rent has doubled to $10,000 per month over the past five years.
"They want to take all our stores and operate them themselves," Lawless said. "That way they can price what they want."
About 10 stations in the New Orleans area have either been closed or taken over by Exxon, including six operated by plaintiffs in the suit, said Walter Thompson, an attorney for the operators.