On June 30, 2011, a Baltimore County Circuit Court jury ruled against ExxonMobil Corporation and awarded plaintiffs $1.53 billion in damages – two thirds in punitive damages - for a release of regular unleaded gasoline from a 12,000 gallon underground storage tank (UST) system at an ExxonMobil retail facility. The gasoline was apparently released from an underground “burst pipe.” The release of approximately 26,000 gallons over a 37 day period (or approximately 0.5 gallon per minute) occurred during January and February 2006 from an independently-owned retail fuel facility located in Jackson, Maryland, about 20 miles north of Baltimore. The facility is located in a relatively affluent residential area that relies solely upon ground water for its drinking water needs. An investigation by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) concluded that ExxonMobil had refilled the 12,000 gallon UST several times during the 37 day period that it was leaking.
According to a July 2, 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, the plaintiffs in the case were 160 families and business that rely upon ground water wells for their drinking water. The jury awarded compensatory damages for diminished property value, fear of cancer, loss of use of the area, fear of the loss of property value, and for medical monitoring purposes. In a statement, ExxonMobil said it will appeal the jury awards. "We are obviously disappointed at this result, which we believe is unsupported by the facts and the law." As soon as the leak was discovered, we immediately took responsibility and, sparing no expense, began cleanup activities." The assessment and remediation of the release was performed under the oversight of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). The plaintiffs' complaint alleged that the independent gasoline-station owners continued "business as usual" after the leak was discovered.
Exxon Mobil asked the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) in January 2010 for approval to stop monitoring some of the 248 private wells near the Jacksonville, Maryland station. MDE agreed to the oil company's request to stop monitoring 130 of the wells. Exxon Mobil also stopped delivering bottled water to those homes.
According to a July 1, 2011 article in the Baltimore Sun, ExxonMobil's lead lawyer in the case, James F. Sanders, said Friday that he anticipates a "veritable book" of post-trial motions to be filed in the Baltimore County Circuit Court in the next couple of weeks. Those arguments will be made before the trial judge, Robert N. Dugan, as a preamble to proceedings before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Sanders said it's possible that appeals in this case might reach the federal courts, as the punitive damage awards could raise constitutional issues over due process.
The $150 million verdict in an earlier trial relative to this gasoline release in a separate ExxonMobil case involving another group of plaintiffs was returned in the spring of 2009. In September 2011, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals will hear a second round of arguments in that case, this time before all 12 of the court's justices rather than a three-judge panel.
This article was authored by Greg Tieman, Acacia Environmental Group LLC. For more information on the author see here.