Class action sought in Harford pollution case

March 31, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

A Harford County judge heard arguments Monday on whether a lawsuit over a vapor leak at an Exxon gas station in Fallston should proceed as a class-action case.

The Peter G. Angelos law firm filed the lawsuit as a class action on behalf of about 150 families and businesses whose wells were contaminated by the gasoline additive MTBE. Lawyers for Exxon Mobil Corp. and the operator of the station contended that the plaintiffs should be required to file individual lawsuits.

In arguing for class-action status, plaintiffs' lawyers said their clients shared a common interest in the leak, which residents learned about in 2004. The lawyers said the station caused the vast majority of any contamination and polluted a single aquifer. Lawyers for the oil company said there were seven sources of contamination.

After a hearing lasting about an hour in Harford County Circuit Court, Judge William O. Carr said that he would issue a ruling later.

It is typical for plaintiffs to seek class certification in cases of this kind, said Donald Gifford, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "A judgment will be much larger and much easier to accomplish" as a class action, Gifford said, which "puts enormous pressure on defendants to settle."

Vapor leaking from the station's underground storage tanks at Routes 152 and 165 triggered Maryland's largest MTBE contamination, according to state officials. The plaintiffs are seeking more than $530 million in individual damages and billions of dollars in restoration damages.

This month, a Baltimore County jury awarded more than $150 million to residents who sued Exxon Mobil over a 2006 leak at an Exxon station in Jacksonville in which 26,000 gallons of gasoline seeped into the groundwater. Those lawsuits were tried individually.

About 60 people, most of them plaintiffs, attended Monday's hearing, which was moved to a larger courtroom in the Bel Air courthouse to accommodate the crowd.

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