Baltimore County

2nd trial in gas spill goes to jury; Exxon is accused of fraud

Lawyers for dozens of Baltimore County families suing Exxon Mobil Corp. closed a six-month trial Friday by arguing for punitive damages in a 2006 underground gasoline leak in Jacksonville, accusing the corporation of playing down the potential harm of the contamination and of committing "fraud."

Lawyer Charles G. Bernstein told the nine-member jury in Baltimore County Circuit Court that "this is fraud, pure and simple. ... Their game was just plain damage control."James F. Sanders, representing Exxon Mobil, wrapped up his case earlier Friday by arguing that the company acknowledged its responsibility in the spill of about 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline and continues the work of removing the liquid gasoline and vapor.

He portrayed this as a case of simple negligence, insisting that punitive damages - which would exceed compensation for lost property value and medical costs associated with the spill - would only discourage the company from cooperating with communities in such cases in the future.

Closing arguments this week came after six months of testimony in the complicated case, which involves about 150 plaintiffs seeking payment for medical monitoring of potential health effects, as well as damages for claimed loss of property value, for emotional disstress and an array of physical problems witnesses said arose from their anxiety about the spill.

No medical conditions have been tied to exposure to the gasoline, which contaminated groundwater in the center of Jacksonville, spreading northeast and southwest from the gas station at the intersection where Jarrettsville Pike meets Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads. Homeowners in the more rural, northern section of the county depend on private wells.

The jury is scheduled to begin its deliberations Monday, but it was hardly clear how long it would take to reach a verdict. The jury in the first case arising from the same spill deliberated for nearly two weeks in March 2009 before awarding $150 million to about 90 other families.

That verdict is being challenged by Exxon Mobil before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which is scheduled to hear further arguments in September.

Lawyer Andrew Cantor, also representing the plaintiffs, emphasized Friday that Exxon Mobil's lawyers during the trial implied that a "safe" level of the gasoline component MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is established by the Maryland standard of 20 parts per billion for official action. Such action could include requiring a homeowner to install water filters.

Of hundreds of wells that were contaminated with MTBE, 12 homes and businesses were above the state action standard.

Cantor told the jury that standard is only for administrative action and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "there is no safe level" of MTBE exposure.

Sanders argued from the start that Exxon Mobil was not trying to shirk its responsibility for the spill. Months ago he told a plaintiff's witness on the stand that her house was "one of those properties we know we damaged. The question is what kind of damage and how much."

Bernstein, the last of five plaintiffs' lawyers from the Peter G. Angelos firm to address the jury and a crowded spectators' gallery yesterday, said "this case is about punitive damages." Were the jury to award only compensatory damages for loss of property value, Bernstein said, Exxon Mobil executives would "be popping the champagne corks and lighting up the big cigars: 'We got away with it again.' "