Maryland's highest court said Tuesday that it won't reconsider its February decisions striking down the lion's share of $1.65 billion judgments against ExxonMobil Corp. in connection with an underground gasoline leak in northern Baltimore County.
Ruling on two separate cases arising from the 26,000-gallon leak at a Jacksonville Exxon gas station in early 2006, the Court of Appeals did order new trials for some plaintiffs in one case, but refused to revisit its most significant aspect: the jury award of punitive damages. That decision nullifies roughly $1 billion of a $1.5 billion award made by a Baltimore County Circuit Court jury in 2011.
The seven-page opinion in that case — which involved about 160 households and businesses in an area that depends on wells for drinking water — did not say why the punitive-damages ruling would not be reconsidered.
In their February opinion, the justices struck down the jury finding that ExxonMobil had been guilty of fraud, which was the basis for the punitive-damage award. The court also rejected all awards for medical monitoring for future potential illness as a result of exposure to contamination, for emotional distress over loss of property value and all but one claim for distress due to fear of disease.
In the other case, in which plaintiffs in 84 households were awarded nearly $150 million in compensatory but no punitive damages, Tuesday's decision also reaffirmed the February ruling — rejecting or sending back for trial all of the damages awarded by the Circuit Court jury in 2009.
Lawyers for the Peter G. Angelos firm and Snyder & Snyder, who argued the 2011 and 2009 cases, respectively, did not return calls seeking comment. Representatives of ExxonMobil also did not respond to a request for comment.
The ruling raises the number of plaintiffs who can pursue new trials for claims of distress due to fear of disease from one to two — still many fewer than were included in the 2011 verdict. It also adds six households to the list of those who can seek new trials for loss of property value.
Among those who can pursue a new trial based on property value is Hans Wilhelmsen, whose family originally received the highest single award, of $60 million in punitive and compensatory damages. While he has said he never expected to receive the full sum, he reacted with bitter disappointment to the ruling in February and Tuesday's refusal to reconsider it.
"Why is it this should be my responsibility to protect my houses when Exxon had the spill?" asked Wilhelmsen, who added water filter systems to his home and three other properties for more than $20,000, with about $4,000 a year in maintenance. "The Court of Appeals seems to think that's fine."
He said two wells on his property, about a mile south of the Exxon station, showed contamination with a gasoline additive, methyl-tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, at or just below the threshold level for state action, 20 parts per billion.
Brendan Sullivan, a Jacksonville resident whose family of four was awarded $33.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages, said he could still recover some damages for loss of property value, but that's all. He also said he was never counting on receiving the full amount initially awarded, but remains anxious about what health effects he and his family could yet suffer from groundwater contamination.
"If I get cancer tomorrow, there's no recourse whatsoever," said Sullivan, whose house sits about a half-mile from the now-closed Exxon station at the main crossroads in Jacksonville. His well did not show contamination near the threshold level of MTBE, but his neighbors' on both sides had benzene contamination, he said.
ExxonMobil drilled a new well for his home and installed a water filter system, although he pays the maintenance of more than $1,000 a year.
"I'm not optimistic to receive a penny," Sullivan said. "Why would Exxon volunteer to give a penny? They won, we lost. So merry Christmas."