The state's second-highest court has rejected much of a $147 million jury verdict that was awarded to hundreds of northern Baltimore County residents whose groundwater was contaminated by a gasoline leak at an Exxon station.
The Court of Special Appeals ruling could mean that some of the Jacksonville plaintiffs — who endured a five-month trial — will have to return to court.
"It comes as a surprise to us, because we haven't been informed," said plaintiff Tresia Parks, reached by phone Thursday night. "We've been through a lot. All I can say is it hasn't been easy. … I guess it's easier for someone else to sit in judgment.
"They're not in our shoes," she said. "They haven't had the sleepless nights."
In a 322-page decision, a majority of the nine-member panel decided that the jury was right to consider awarding money — which, in the end, totaled more than $70 million — for the mental stress residents suffered as a result of the contamination.
But a different majority of the judges found "insufficient evidence of emotional distress for 53 Jacksonville residents," and reversed that part of the jury's damage award. For the remaining plaintiffs — about 150 people, according to their attorney — a new trial will be necessary to re-assess their emotional distress award amounts because the instructions given to the jury were imprecise, the court said.
"It is very disheartening and totally unexpected," said Theresa Nickel, one of the plaintiffs whose emotional distress claim was erased, without an opportunity for a new trial.
The court also took away any money given out by the jury for the residents' health checks. The only portion of the jury's award that was substantially allowed to stand was compensation for a loss in property values.
"It scares the bejesus out of you when you think, 'What have I been drinking? What have I been bathing in?" said Parks. "Who is going to walk in here and say, 'Sure I'll buy that house'?"
Here's an example of how the ruling applies to an individual plaintiff: Steven Tizard, whose Robcaste Road home was behind the leaking gas station, was given $1 million in emotional damages, $700,000 for property damages and about $290,000 for medical monitoring under the jury award, according to a 2009 report from The Baltimore Sun. The Court of Special Appeal's ruling lets stand the $700,000 property award, eliminates the $290,000 medical monitoring funds and cleans the slate for emotional damages, leaving them to be re-evaluated by Baltimore County's Circuit Court.
The case stems from February 2006, when a Jacksonville gas station leaked more than 700 gallons of gasoline per day for more than a month before the spill was discovered and repaired. In all, 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline seeped into the groundwater that supplied wells in northern Baltimore County. The incident spurred several lawsuits.
The first trial relating to the spill proceeded from October 2008 through the following March. A six-member jury stopped well short of the multibillion-dollar verdict sought by the plaintiff's lawyers because the four women and two men ruled that Exxon Mobil Corp. was not guilty of fraud, removing the possibility of assessing punitive damages.
A second case against Exxon Mobil, which included roughly 150 plaintiffs and was brought by a different attorney, was tried in 2011 and resulted in a $1.5 billion verdict. That case, unlike the previous case, awarded punitive damages — those intended purely as punishment, not to compensate the plaintiffs for losses and future expenses — that inflated the jury's award.
Thursday's ruling affected only the first case. That jury wound up giving residents a damage award on several factors.
"As for compensatory damages, the jury awarded the owners of each home 100% of the pre-leak value of their real property," Thursday's majority opinion states. "Most of the plaintiffs also received emotional distress damages totaling approximately $1,000,000 per household. Finally, most of the plaintiffs received damages for medical monitoring … depending on the degree of contamination."
The complex appeals court decision included several opinions, with the majority view shifting on several issues. For example, the majority found that "under certain circumstances, Maryland law permits recovery for emotional distress related to reasonable fear of cancer."
Likewise, a majority of the panel said it would recognize a damages award for medical monitoring under certain circumstances. However, a different majority found that the evidence was insufficient to support it in this case.
Reached by phone, plaintiffs' attorney Stephen L. Snyder was confident that the emotional distress damages would be enlarged for plaintiffs whose claims were sent back for a new trial.
"This is no victory for Exxon," Snyder said. "In the second round, the verdict will be higher for emotional distress damages than in the first."
The plaintiffs will either file for reconsideration, he said, or ask the state's highest court to analyze the medical monitoring and emotional distress awards without touching the property damage awards.
Exxon's attorney for both this case and last year's trial, James F. Sanders, did not return calls for comment Thursday night. His assistant said he was traveling and would be unavailable by phone. A call to Exxon was not returned.
Attorneys from the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, who are representing plaintiffs in the second trial, also did not respond to inquiries.
The state also filed a $12 million suit against Exxon Mobil stemming from the Jacksonville spill. It was settled for $4 million in 2008, which was the largest environmental penalty ever levied by the state.
A previous version of this story incorrectly described the status of the cleanup in the area.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.