By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun
5:28 PM EST, November 5, 2012
The Exxon Mobil Corp. asked Maryland's highest court Monday to erase most of the more than $1.5 billion awarded in two lawsuits over a large gasoline spill that Jacksonville residents claimed polluted their well water, left them fearful of getting cancer and made their property worthless.
The oil giant's attorneys asked that new trials be held only on property value issues. That would leave the corporation and homeowners to argue over which homeowners to compensate for losses in property value. Exxon lawyers maintain that some homeowners would receive millions of dollars more than their property was worth if the awards remain standing.
At stake is the $1 billion in punitive damages as well the amounts for residents' health monitoring and emotional distress over their fear of developing cancer from contaminated drinking water.
Lawyers for hundreds of residents in the Baltimore County community countered that Exxon's attorneys were asking the Court of Appeals to "act as a super-jury" because jurors made decisions based on lengthy testimony and evidence in lengthy trials.
While Exxon lawyers referred to the 2006 spill as an "accident," attorneys for the residents contended the company deceived Baltimore County officials about safety when building the station in the 1980s, and in 2006 misrepresented why the station was closed, saying it was for upgrades, not a leak.
The cases grew out of a 2006 fuel-line leak at a Jacksonville Exxon station that spilled more than 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline and wasn't discovered for more than a month. In one trial, jurors ordered $1.53 billion in damages paid to the families. In the other, it was $147 million, though a Court of Special Appeals decision put that in question.
Among the numerous legal issues argued during nearly three hours of arguments was how strict a standard judges should apply when looking at the basis for a fear of developing a disease.
So far, Exxon has spent $52 million on a state-ordered cleanup.
There is no deadline for the Court of Appeals to rule.
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