(KENNETH K. LAM, Baltimore…)
The cleanup is supposed to be done in 2014, nearly eight years after 26,000 gallons of gasoline contaminated the groundwater in a northern Baltimore County neighborhood, but there's no end in sight for the legal wrangling.
On Thursday, the state Court of Special Appeals rejected much of a $147 million jury verdict awarded in 2009 to about 90 homeowners who sued Exxon Mobil Corp., which owned the Jacksonville filling station where the gasoline seeped into the ground.
The ruling has frustrated residents and diminished their hopes that they will ever be compensated for the property damage and emotional anguish suffered from having chemicals from unleaded gas flowing into their wells.
And the groundwater extraction continues, with 10,000 gallons of gasoline already removed and 1,150 tons of contaminated soil treated in the area, said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Residents' wells are also still being monitored.
The state's second-highest court said that because the trial judge's instructions to the jury were imprecise on the issue of emotional distress, most of the plaintiffs would have to go through a new trial.
The court also took away money given out by the jury for the residents' health monitoring, leaving only compensation for a loss in property values.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Stephen L. Snyder, said many of his clients have called him since learning of the decision to see how the court's opinion would affect them. While he said his firm is still examining the 322-page decision handed down by the nine-member panel, he plans to hold a meeting next week to discuss the next step with his clients.
A statement Friday from Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Claire Hassett said the company is "pleased the court reduced the damages awarded in this case [but] will consider our legal options. We stand ready to compensate those who were truly damaged by this unfortunate accident."
Hassett declined to comment on how Thursday's ruling might affect another lawsuit — which resulted in a $1.5 billion jury award in 2011 — stemming from the same spill.
"However, our arguments will continue to be focused on the fact that no one in Jacksonville has been physically hurt due to MTBE exposure, and no doctor has provided any evidence of physical injury," Hassett said. "Moreover, the Maryland Department of the Environment has said the water is safe to drink and use."
Residents are frustrated by the ruling.
"I'm disappointed with [the court's decision]. I'm certainly sure the residents are disappointed," said Glen Thomas, who served as president of the Greater Jacksonville Association in 2006, when the spill occurred. He is not a plaintiff in either lawsuit against Exxon, and his house was not affected by the spill.
Thomas said he was not surprised by the unfavorable outcome. "I fully expected Exxon — with all of its money — would pull this out in court," he said.
The second lawsuit was filed by a different group of about 150 plaintiffs and resulted in a $1.5 billion verdict, mostly in punitive damages —not to compensate the plaintiffs for losses and future expenses.
Exxon is expected to appeal the jury's awards. The plaintiffs' attorneys in this case did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.
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