Exxon to face more lawsuits over gas leak

Exxon Mobil Corp. is facing more lawsuits over the 25,000-gallon gasoline leak this year from one of its service stations that fouled ground water in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County.

With at least two suits over the leak already lodged against the oil company, an additional 50 claims from Jacksonville-area families seeking a collective $1 billion in punitive damages are to be filed today, said Stephen L. Snyder, their attorney.The lawsuits accuse Exxon Mobil of negligence for allowing the gas to leak from an underground fuel line at the station. The suits also accuse the company and the station operator, Storto Enterprises Inc., of knowingly failing to report the leak for 37 days and of exaggerating the success of cleanup effort.

Six residential and commercial wells have been contaminated enough by gasoline or its components to exceed state drinking-water guidelines, but officials say 62 residential wells show traces of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive.

"This is a major disruption in a lot of good families' lives," Snyder said. Families are worried about their drinking water, he said, as well as potential exposure to gas vapor, the effect on property values and disruption caused by the cleanup.

Also, according to the suits, Exxon had been found liable for a 1981 gas leak in the neighborhood - one in which the company was ordered after a trial to pay nearly $2 million in punitive damages.

"Obviously, the punishment didn't work," Snyder said. And, the lawyer added, Exxon, which reported a record $8.4 billion profit in the first quarter of this year, can afford to pay.

Betsy Eaton, spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil, said she had not seen the yet-to-be-filed lawsuits and could not comment.

A high-profile trial lawyer who promotes his record of winning four judgments or settlements worth more than $100 million each, Snyder launched a newspaper and Internet advertising campaign last year seeking $1 billion cases.

His move comes on the heels of two lawsuits filed against Exxon Mobil and Storto. The law firm of Peter G. Angelos filed a class action suit in March on behalf of residents seeking $535 million in punitive damages and other relief. The Maryland Department of the Environment went to court last month seeking nearly $12 million in penalties from the two businesses for alleged violations of state laws and regulations in what officials have called a "catastrophic" leak.

Snyder said his clients' lawsuits were "completely different" from the case brought by Angelos' law firm.

G. Macy Nelson, another plaintiff's lawyer who is not representing Jacksonville residents, said he sympathized with their plight. But he expressed doubts about their ability to win significant punitive damages because of a 1992 Court of Appeals ruling that drastically narrowed the grounds for such penalties.

Steven Tizard, 44, who said he helped organize the group of residents who hired Snyder, defended their quest for punitive damages.

"We have a 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, two dogs, a bird," he said.

Although Tizard's well on Robcaste Road has not shown contaminants, monitoring wells on his property have gas in them.

"We can't drink the water in good conscience. ... The aggravation, the nuisance, the peace of mind I've lost, the property values - I think a billion dollars is not enough, quite frankly."

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