$495 million award from Exxon in Balto. Co. gas spill could grow

A Baltimore County jury has ordered Exxon Mobil Corp. to pay more than $495 million to compensate a group of Jacksonville families and businesses for claims of lost property value, emotional distress and medical monitoring resulting from a 2006 underground gasoline leak — and damages could continue to grow.

The Circuit Court jury was scheduled to continue working Thursday to decide an amount to award the 160 families and businesses in punitive damages, which could be several times higher. The six-member civil jury began deliberations Wednesday afternoon on a financial award to punish the company for what its verdict described as "fraud," including misleading state and county officials and Jacksonville community members about the equipment at the gas station, the reason why the station initially closed, and about efforts to clean up the spill.

The plaintiffs' lawyer has accused the company of taking a "leak and lie" approach to the spill from a pressurized fuel line in early 2006 and to leaks at another Exxon station in Jacksonville in 1979 and 1980. The lawyer, Charles G. Bernstein of the Peter G. Angelos firm, urged jury members on Tuesday to return a verdict for "three to five times" the sum they had awarded in compensatory damages.

According to a review of the complex verdict, delivered in six loose-leaf binders, the largest single award went to the family of Hans Wilhelmsen, which owns several properties along Jarrettsville Pike. With damages applied to each of the properties, the sum came to nearly $14 million.

Families with several children also received high awards, as expenses for medical monitoring were applied to each person — more for younger children who would theoretically need more years of attention. The family of Charles and Julia Riegger of Southside Avenue and their three children, for instance, received one of the higher individual awards: more than $6.9 million.

Some 400 people are involved in the suit, which has been argued before Judge Robert N. Dugan since January. This is the second lawsuit against ExxonMobil arising from the leak that unfolded over 37 days in January and February of 2006 at the Exxon station on Jarrettsville Pike, at the intersection of Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads.

The leak spilled about 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline into the groundwater near the center of a community that has no public water or sewer service and depends on private wells for drinking water.

In the first suit, involving fewer plaintiffs, the jury awarded $150 million in compensatory damages, but not punitive damages. ExxonMobil is challenging that verdict before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. No cases of physical illness from exposure to contaminated water have been reported in Jacksonville.

ExxonMobil had hoped to avoid punitive damages, arguing from the start that it did not evade responsibility for the leak and worked with the Maryland Department of the Environment to clean it up. That cleanup continues to this day.

ExxonMobil lawyer James F. Sanders told the jury Tuesday that the international corporation had already spent more than $46 million on the cleanup and had been fined $4 million by the state.

The plaintiffs' lawyers argued that ExxonMobil was guilty of fraud in trying to conceal the scope of the damage, in reporting the results of the gasoline and gas vapor recovery operation, in misleading the public at first about why the gas station was closed and in information conveyed to county officials about the safety of the underground fuel system.

The standard for punitive damages in Maryland is high, having been raised in the 1980s from negligence to willful misconduct and deception.

Verdict forms on compensatory damages that were delivered to the judge on Tuesday and made public on Wednesday show that the jury agreed with the plaintiffs' arguments.

The six women who made up the jury found that ExxonMobil "intentionally and knowingly misrepresented" information given to county officials about an underground gasoline containment vessel and removal of gas sensors from the fuel system. The jury also found that ExxonMobil intentionally gave misleading information to the Maryland Department of the Environment about the type of pipe used in the underground fuel system.

ExxonMobil was found to have misled members of the community by posting a sign saying the station was "Closed for Upgrades," but not mentioning the leak. The sign was removed in a few days.

On Tuesday, Bernstein showed the jury statements filed by ExxonMobil with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reporting profits of $10 billion in the first quarter of 2011, and a total company net worth of $158 billion. He urged the jury to award punitive damages to "express the outrage of the community" and deter ExxonMobil from doing similar damage in the future.

Sanders repeated his apology for the spill, reminded the jury of the work done to clean it up and argued that ExxonMobil's shareholders would ultimately pay the punitive damages.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and for ExxonMobil were not available to comment; Judge Dugan imposed a gag order on all parties to the case.


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