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Damages in Balto. Co. Exxon leak suit rise to $1.5 billion

Baltimore County jurors returned a verdict for punitive damages against ExxonMobil Corp. on Thursday that raises the total award stemming from an underground gasoline leak in 2006 to more than $1.5 billion, a figure that a plaintiffs' lawyer says could make it the largest judgment ever in a case of this type.

A review of the final verdict, released in full Friday, shows that it includes more than $1 billion in new awards divided among 160 families and businesses in the small north county community of Jacksonville, plus compensatory damages awarded earlier in the week.

A sample of 36 of the 160 verdict forms made available by the Circuit Court shows that in some cases, plaintiffs were awarded more than four times in punitive damages what they received in compensation for loss of property values, emotional distress and for medical monitoring of potential illness from contaminated water.

The family of Hans Wilhelmsen of Jarrettsville Pike, which received the highest compensatory award of $13.9 million, was awarded $46.8 million in punitive damages. The family of Mark Lindenmeyer of Hampshire Glen Court received $6 million in compensation and $15.6 million in punitive damages. The total punitive damages released by the court Thursday were about $320 million.

H. Russell Smouse, a member of the Peter G. Angelos firm, said, "We've been too busy trying this case to view all the verdicts in this area of litigation. But I do feel this may well be the largest verdict ever" in cases of groundwater contamination by leaking storage tanks or underground fuel lines.

James F. Sanders, the lead lawyer for ExxonMobil in a trial that went six months, said the verdicts were "not supported by the facts overall" and would be appealed.

A statement released Thursday evening by an ExxonMobil spokeswoman said that "as soon as the leak was discovered, we immediately took responsibility and, sparing no expense, began cleanup activities working under the Maryland Department of Environment's oversight and direction."

The leak in a pressurized fuel line in an Exxon station near the center of the small community went undetected for 37 days in January and February 2006, spilling about 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline into the groundwater in an area without public water service. Hundreds of household wells were contaminated to some degree, and some families have been supplied with bottled water for years.

No cases of illness resulting from exposure to contaminated water have been reported in Jacksonville. Plaintiffs made claims of physical symptoms such as sleeplessness, headaches and muscle pain that they linked to emotional stress from worry about their health and the value of their property.

ExxonMobil's lawyers argued that the leak was an accident and that the international corporation worked hard to repair the damage. The plaintiff's lawyers accused the corporation of misleading officials of the county, the state and Jacksonville residents in statements about the underground equipment at the gas station, the cleanup and the reasons why the gas station at the busy intersection initially closed.

It was the allegations of "fraud," as the plaintiffs' lawyers put it, that set this case apart from an earlier case arising from the same leak that was tried by a different law firm. In that suit, involving roughly 90 households, the jury in 2009 returned a compensatory damage award of $150 million, which ExxonMobil is now challenging in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

The jury's finding of willful misconduct, rather than negligence, led to the decision for punitive damages, an outcome ExxonMobil had hoped to avoid. On Wednesday, the court made public a $495 million compensatory damage award.

"Obviously, we are very disappointed at this result," Sanders told reporters on the courthouse steps Thursday evening. "We were particularly chagrined at the punitive damage decision. It's the decision that really stings."

The notion that ExxonMobil would be "guilty of fraudulent conduct is the most disturbing part of this trial as far as I'm concerned," said Sanders, repeating his assertion that the leak "was an accident" and ExxonMobil was sorry for the damage it caused.

In returning its awards for compensation on Tuesday, the jury reported its decision to also award punitive damages, then heard further arguments from each side before beginning two days of deliberation on how to punish ExxonMobil.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Charles G. Bernstein urged the six women on the jury to "express the outrage of the community" with their punitive award. He accused ExxonMobil of taking a "leak and lie" approach that dates back to much smaller underground spills that occurred at another Exxon station in Jacksonville in 1979 and 1980.

Sanders told the jury that the corporation had already spent more than $46 million on the cleanup, had been fined $4 million by the state and would continue to clean up the mess until the work was completed. He said that punitive damages would hurt shareholders, who were members of the community.

The jury agreed with the plaintiffs, as the verdicts found the corporation "intentionally and knowingly" misled local and state officials about the gas station's equipment and the cleanup

An earlier version of this story incorrectly calculated the verdict sheets that were released Thursday. The Sun regrets the error.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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