A maintenance supervisor for Exxon Mobil Corp. said yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court that he did not know how to operate a device that should have prevented a massive gasoline leak three years ago at a service station in Jacksonville.
The underground leak dumped more than 26,000 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline into the groundwater that supplied the area's wells and ruined property values for some 300 homeowners, who are seeking at least $1 billion from the oil giant. The trial began in October, and the plaintiffs are still presenting their case to the jury.
Joseph Mocsary, the company's maintenance and repair coordinator for Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia, said he was familiar with the device - a leak detector for high-pressure underground fuel lines - and knows "in general" how it works, but was not trained to operate it or to program its computer. Those functions are left to certified technicians, he said.
But Stephen L. Snyder, whose firm represents the plaintiffs, displayed on a screen in the courtroom in Towson a series of e-mails written by Mocsary to ExxonMobil colleagues shortly after the oil spill was discovered in February 2006 in which, Snyder said, Mocsary displayed a comprehensive knowledge of the system's operation.
In fact, Snyder suggested, it might well have been Mocsary himself who altered some settings on the detector after the leak was found to make it appear as though a technician had messed up the device.
"I would take very strong exception to that," Mocsary said from the witness said.
Snyder said during a break that he was seeking to counter ExxonMobil's claim in its opening arguments that human error caused the spill, and not years of neglect of the system, as the plaintiffs allege. The residents assert that ExxonMobil knew for at least seven years before the leak that the electronic leak detectors it used were prone to failure but that the company not only failed to replace them but deliberately concealed that history as the magnitude of the spill became apparent.
Last year, ExxonMobil agreed to pay $4 million to the Maryland Department of the Environment as a penalty for the spill in northern Baltimore County. Earlier, Exxon officials had apologized and began the arduous process of removing the gasoline from the ground, an effort that could take a decade.
Before Mocsary took the stand yesterday, the jury heard testimony from Abdul Malik, a psychiatrist who examined 70 of the plaintiffs who had sought help in dealing with their reactions to the gasoline spill. Malik said many of them were "devastated," and he diagnosed all of them with adverse emotional and psychological conditions as a result. An additional 17 plaintiffs were examined by other doctors in Malik's office, with similar results.
Pressed by defense counsel William J. Stack, who had sought to portray many of the plaintiffs as having suffered emotional and family problems long before the spill occurred, Malik defended his diagnoses. He said that people with pre-existing emotional trauma were especially vulnerable to catastrophic events.
"If someone did not have a reaction, an emotional response, I would worry about that person," Malik said later outside the courtroom. "They would be in massive denial."