Vindication mixes with continued uncertainty for Exxon plaintiffs

Jacksonville residents win $1.5 billion judgment, but wonder when they'll be paid

July 01, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

The oversized windows of Hans Wilhelmsen's house in Jacksonville command a view to the east of hills dotted with baled hay and stands of oak, maple and pine on the 70 acres he owns a mile south of where an Exxon station unleashed an underground flood of unleaded gasoline five years ago. Thirteen bison patrolled the fields then, but they're gone now, and Wilhelmsen is sure he knows why.

"We saw six die at one time" about two years ago, Wilhelmsen said. His family was among the 160 households and businesses who were awarded $1.53 billion this week in a lawsuit against ExxonMobil in connection with the spill in the winter of 2006 that contaminated groundwater in a community dependent on private wells. "It has to be in the food source or the water source, and it wasn't the food source."

He never had his suspicion tested by experts, although he was questioned about that by ExxonMobil's lawyers. What killed the bison some 30 years before they reached their expected life span is not clear. It's one of many uncertainties that remain in Jacksonville, where residents worry about the continuing hazards of contamination and what will become of the jury awards through the long process of judicial appeals.

"The big unknown is how long, and how much," said Wilhelmsen, who with his wife and two young boys received the highest damage award for any one household: $60 million in punitive and compensatory damages — in part because he owns several properties. He figures people must think he won a lottery, but it's hardly that simple.

The verdicts conclude a six-month-trial, but they're as much the beginning of a legal proceeding as an ending.

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 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 the first trial in a separate Exxon case involving another group of plaintiffs was returned in the spring of 2009. In September, 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. As appeals continue, damages have not been paid.

"At this point, it's a moral victory, there's nothing beyond that," said Paul Ianuly, who with his wife, Almarie, live on Constantine Drive, south of the station, won about $9.3 million in punitive and compensatory damages in the most recent trial.

Wilhelmsen said he is "still left to worry every day about the quality of life and the safety of my family."

Two years ago, he installed water filter systems in his home on Jarrettsville Pike and the three houses he rents. His wells showed trace amounts of contaminants, but several neighbors' well tests were worse. People in Jacksonville learned that the movement of contaminants through groundwater constantly defies expectations.

The contamination moved northeast and southwest of the station when the experts expected it to only follow the slope of the ground to the southwest. One home's wells would show little or no contamination, while a neighbor's would be much higher. Wells would test clean one month, and not so several months later. As Wilhelmsen emphasized, the test reveals conditions only for that moment.

No cases of illness have been tied to exposure to contaminated water, but anxiety lingers. The verdicts for compensatory damages include amounts for continuing medical monitoring for potential hazards, and for emotional stress for worry about cancer and other diseases.

Susan Dyer, whose family lives across the street from the Ianulys, said concern about harmful gasoline compounds at her parents' home were "always in the back of my head" whenever she brushed her teeth or took a shower.

"It's definitely been a really upsetting ordeal," said Dyer, whose family won $9.7 million in total damages. She said two of the family's pets, a dog and a cat, had died of kidney problems in recent years. She could not be sure their deaths had any connection to the gasoline leak, but she wonders.

The Ianulys installed a carbon water filter system last year for about $2,000, after they got a second high reading for a key contaminant, MTBE, or methyl-tertiary butyl ether. That's eased their mind somewhat, but Almarie said she still worries whether they're going to be able to rely on the value of their property for their retirement security.

"It's been an absolute nightmare," said Paul Ianuly, a retired marketing executive. "Exxon initially told us that since we were outside the half-mile marker, our water wouldn't be affected."

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