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Vindication mixes with continued uncertainty for Exxon plaintiffs

RentalsJustice SystemConstitutional Issues

The oversized windows of Hans Wilhelmsen's house in Jacksonville command a view to the east of hills dotted with baled hay and stands of oak, maple and pine on the 70 acres he owns a mile south of where an Exxon station unleashed an underground flood of unleaded gasoline five years ago. Thirteen bison patrolled the fields then, but they're gone now, and Wilhelmsen is sure he knows why.

"We saw six die at one time" about two years ago, Wilhelmsen said. His family was among the 160 households and businesses who were awarded $1.53 billion this week in a lawsuit against ExxonMobil in connection with the spill in the winter of 2006 that contaminated groundwater in a community dependent on private wells. "It has to be in the food source or the water source, and it wasn't the food source."

He never had his suspicion tested by experts, although he was questioned about that by ExxonMobil's lawyers. What killed the bison some 30 years before they reached their expected life span is not clear. It's one of many uncertainties that remain in Jacksonville, where residents worry about the continuing hazards of contamination and what will become of the jury awards through the long process of judicial appeals.

"The big unknown is how long, and how much," said Wilhelmsen, who with his wife and two young boys received the highest damage award for any one household: $60 million in punitive and compensatory damages — in part because he owns several properties. He figures people must think he won a lottery, but it's hardly that simple.

The verdicts conclude a six-month-trial, but they're as much the beginning of a legal proceeding as an ending.

ExxonMobil's lead lawyer in the case, James F. Sanders, said Friday that he anticipates a "veritable book" of post-trial motions to be filed in Circuit Court in the next couple of weeks. Those arguments will be made before the trial judge, Robert N. Dugan, as a preamble to proceedings before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Sanders said it's possible that appeals in this case might reach the federal courts, as the punitive damage awards could raise constitutional issues over due process.

The $150 million verdict in the first trial in a separate Exxon case involving another group of plaintiffs was returned in the spring of 2009. In September, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals will hear a second round of arguments in that case, this time before all 12 of the court's justices rather than a three-judge panel. As appeals continue, damages have not been paid.

"At this point, it's a moral victory, there's nothing beyond that," said Paul Ianuly, who with his wife, Almarie, live on Constantine Drive, south of the station, won about $9.3 million in punitive and compensatory damages in the most recent trial.

Wilhelmsen said he is "still left to worry every day about the quality of life and the safety of my family."

Two years ago, he installed water filter systems in his home on Jarrettsville Pike and the three houses he rents. His wells showed trace amounts of contaminants, but several neighbors' well tests were worse. People in Jacksonville learned that the movement of contaminants through groundwater constantly defies expectations.

The contamination moved northeast and southwest of the station when the experts expected it to only follow the slope of the ground to the southwest. One home's wells would show little or no contamination, while a neighbor's would be much higher. Wells would test clean one month, and not so several months later. As Wilhelmsen emphasized, the test reveals conditions only for that moment.

No cases of illness have been tied to exposure to contaminated water, but anxiety lingers. The verdicts for compensatory damages include amounts for continuing medical monitoring for potential hazards, and for emotional stress for worry about cancer and other diseases.

Susan Dyer, whose family lives across the street from the Ianulys, said concern about harmful gasoline compounds at her parents' home were "always in the back of my head" whenever she brushed her teeth or took a shower.

"It's definitely been a really upsetting ordeal," said Dyer, whose family won $9.7 million in total damages. She said two of the family's pets, a dog and a cat, had died of kidney problems in recent years. She could not be sure their deaths had any connection to the gasoline leak, but she wonders.

The Ianulys installed a carbon water filter system last year for about $2,000, after they got a second high reading for a key contaminant, MTBE, or methyl-tertiary butyl ether. That's eased their mind somewhat, but Almarie said she still worries whether they're going to be able to rely on the value of their property for their retirement security.

"It's been an absolute nightmare," said Paul Ianuly, a retired marketing executive. "Exxon initially told us that since we were outside the half-mile marker, our water wouldn't be affected."

As a result, he said, he and his wife used their well water for more than two years after the leak without knowing what was in it. For much of that time, their daughter and her three children were also living in the house, with constant visits from the kids' friends. They were all drinking the water.

He took some satisfaction in the verdict, if only because "I think Exxon needed to be disciplined and clearly told, 'You don't do this. You've got to have a better plan in place to protect people.'"

Dorothy Hyman, who lives with her husband, Richard, on Jarrettsville Pike, said it was the jury's decision to find that ExxonMobil deliberately misled the community and local and state officials that seemed most significant.

"We're thrilled, especially with the fraud verdict," she said. "That's really what had most people in the area so upset, was that they lied to us. Repeatedly."

She and her husband were awarded $6.4 million in total damages, but she's realistic about the appeals process.

"We're hoping our grandchildren see it," said Dorothy Hyman, who is 61. She's most concerned with the money for medical monitoring.

"We don't know what this could mean. We might have health issues down the line," she said, although her well has never tested positive for contaminants. "Every time you turn on the tap it's 'Gee, I wonder.' Especially with the grandchildren. It's this niggling thing in the back of your mind all the time."

Wilhelmsen also wonders what he'll have to pass along to his boys, who are 3 and 5 years old. His father came to this county from Norway, built a medical practice, and brought the bison onto the land nearly 40 years ago, chiefly because it seemed a part of Americana that was fading away.

He plans to pass the land along to his boys, as his father did to him. But the bison are gone, after he gave away the seven that survived. Wilhelmsen fears his boys will inherit a tainted legacy. The money won't fix that, he said, if anyone lives to see it at all.

Baltimore Sun reporters Nick Madigan and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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