The City Council voted unanimously in a closed session meeting on Tuesday to hire Burlingame firm Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy to file a suit against Chevron, Councilman Tom Butt said.
The firm handled a suit against PG&E by victims of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
Butt said the council came to the decision after three unsuccessful negotiation meetings with Chevron representatives. "We were disappointed we were unable to reach a resolution," the councilman said.
The city is seeking damages incurred by the Aug. 6, 2012, fire, which destroyed a crude oil unit at Chevron's local refinery and sent a plume of toxic smoke into the air, sickening at least 15,000 people.
The fire was sparked by a leaking, corroded pipe in the crude oil unit.
Butt said the enormous blaze that resulted stretched the city's public safety resources and equipment and appears to be to blame for a massive drop in the city's assessed property values over the past year.
A lawsuit is "the next step," he said.
The city has agreed to pay up to $500,000 for the law firm's services, and the firm will receive up to 13.5 percent of any amount awarded by Chevron, according to the city's contract with Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy, which was signed today.
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said in a statement Thursday that the City Council's decision "does not change our commitment to the Richmond community."
"We have been working with the community to build a long-term partnership that will benefit local residents. We remain committed to the community's economic development and to improve the quality of life for all of Richmond," Ritchie said.