A lawyer for Exxon Mobil Corp. yesterday promised the residents of a Baltimore County neighborhood that the company would "pay money damages to the people who were harmed" by a 26,000-gallon gasoline leak that contaminated the groundwater beneath their homes two years ago.
"We want to make it right," the lawyer, James F. Sanders, said at the start of a trial in which 309 plaintiffs are trying to paint the oil giant as a careless steward of its facilities and the responsible party in what they view as the ruin of their land. "There is some harm here in this case. Some plaintiffs have suffered emotional distress and some plaintiffs have suffered loss in property values."
At first glance, Sanders' admission might - in political-debate terms - be considered a game changer, or at least an acknowledgment that his opponent's case has enough merit to force him to concede part of his argument.
But the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Stephen L. Snyder, said during a break in the Baltimore County Circuit Court trial that Sanders' offer was purely tactical, an effort to steer the jury toward granting compensatory rather than punitive damages - the latter often a far greater sum.
"I predicted he would say that, to lessen the blow," Snyder said, referring to Sanders' offer to help those affected. "It's to acknowledge responsibility for compensatory damages. But, for us, it sets the stage for an evaluation of the misconduct."
A central part of the plaintiffs' case pivots on allegations that Exxon had known for at least seven years before the incident that the electronic leak detectors it used at its gas station in Jacksonville were perennially defective but that the company failed to monitor them properly or replace them with a more reliable brand.
For the company to prevail in its wish to avoid punitive damages - which Snyder said could rise to as much as $2 billion - "you'd have to ignore the documented evidence of seven years."
In his presentation, Exxon's lawyer said that, while the company accepted liability for actual, proven harm, it did not commit fraud or act with "intentional malice" or negligence. On the contrary, Sanders said, the company and its contractors made every effort to begin cleaning up the mess as soon as the underground leak was discovered on Feb. 17, 2006 - which was later determined to be 37 days after it had sprouted from a high-pressure pipe.
Sanders took exception to Snyder's assertion that Exxon officials are "waiting to cut and run" from their obligations at the site, and that, "when they do, all hell is going to break loose." He said the company will not be able to stop its remediation efforts in the Jacksonville neighborhood "until the Maryland Department of the Environment says it is clean" - a process that could take a decade or more.
"You know already that mistakes were made all up and down the line," Sanders said. "But we accept responsibility. There's no one here but us."
Then, going to what he described as the most important part of his presentation, Sanders said the company was "sorry for the leak" and the fact that it persisted "for over 30 days without being discovered." He apologized to the residents of Jacksonville, to the state of Maryland and to the 14-member jury that sat before him, a panel that is likely to spend several months hearing testimony in the case.
Sanders said that, contrary to what the plaintiffs' attorney had said earlier, "We didn't start pointing fingers at everybody." The company's position was that the spill was "unacceptable" and "inexcusable" and that it "must not happen again."
"I can understand the fear, the concern," Sanders said, referring to what the residents might be feeling. "I can understand them being mad. If I lived out there, I would be mad."