Lawyer sets new tack in next Exxon case

March 14, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

For the past five months, spectators in a Baltimore County courtroom watched as dozens of families who live near a Jacksonville service station that leaked thousands of gallons of gasoline into the community's groundwater made their case against Exxon Mobil Corp.

One especially interested onlooker at the trial, which concluded Thursday with a jury awarding $150 million to the plaintiffs, was attorney Theodore M. Flerlage Jr.

"It's always interesting to see how another firm addresses a situation," said Flerlage, who is with the Peter G. Angelos law firm. "I felt sorry for the plaintiffs, and I found their testimony very compelling."

Flerlage's turn comes next. He will represent 150 other Jacksonville homeowners and businesses against the oil giant in a suit over the same spill that is scheduled to go to trial next year.

The plaintiffs in the Angelos firm's case were also closely watching the verdicts this week in their neighbors' lawsuits.

"It sounded pretty good to me," said Ted Hannibal, who has lived on Stansbury Mill Road for more than 40 years. "I guess our time will come - we'll see what we can do."

Though he called this week's verdict "a major success" and congratulated Stephen L. Snyder, who led the plaintiffs' legal team, Flerlage said he would pursue the case from a slightly different angle, alleging, among other things, that Exxon "improperly designed and constructed" the station when it put up the structure 26 years ago.

"It's apparent to me that when they built it in 1983, they built it improperly," he said.

After the leak was revealed, many Jacksonville residents looked for lawyers to represent them in suits against Exxon.

Ron Diedeman, 71, of Robcaste Road was a member of a committee that interviewed a half-dozen law firms. He signed on with Snyder, who he said "seemed to have a real passion for the situation right from the beginning."

His brother, Phillip Diedeman, 60, who lives on Paper Mill Road, chose Angelos. Phillip Diedeman did not respond to messages left on his answering machine, but Flerlage confirmed that he is a plaintiff.

Hours after Thursday's verdict, Ron Diedeman stood in the yard of the yellow Victorian house he built in 1999, gave a weary look and expressed mixed emotions.

The award - he got $650,000 for his house and more than $1 million in other damages - would just about compensate for his loss in property value, he said. But he worries about the health of his wife, a cancer survivor, frets over how he is going to sell the house, and wonders whether Exxon cared about the harm it had caused.

"Exxon has to be walking away from this laughing," said Diedeman as he pointed to his well, in which he said the gas additive MTBE was found. "What does it take them to earn $150 million? About 10 seconds?

"As a businessman, I'm angry over their actions," said Diedeman, a mechanical engineer. "I understand what customer service is. Exxon didn't go to one house in this community and say, 'Your well is contaminated. How can we help you?' Does that sound responsible to you?"

He recalled an internal Exxon e-mail that came out during the trial.

"It said something like, 'Years from now, Jacksonville will be just another notch on the tree of life,' " he said. "That just about sums up their feelings."

Meanwhile, Ron Diedeman's daughter, Linda Langrill, lives about 10 miles away in Fallston, where a vapor leak was discovered at an Exxon station in 2004. She and her family are among the plaintiffs in a suit Angelos is bringing against Exxon for contaminating wells with MTBE. A Harford County Circuit Court judge will hold a hearing March 30 on whether that case will proceed as a class action suit or on behalf of individual plaintiffs.

In the Baltimore County case, Flerlage said he will also argue that the leaks began as far back as 2004.

Kristin Hellman, an Exxon spokeswoman, said yesterday the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Curtis Glatfelter, an Angelos client who lives on Clynmalira Court, said he was happy to see residents awarded compensatory damages but was disappointed that there weren't any punitive ones.

Sun reporters Arin Gencer and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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