Lawyers ask for extension in Exxon leak case

Seeking another 30 days, longer argument for high court reconsideration

March 25, 2013|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Lawyers for northern Baltimore County families and businesses whose $1.5 billion damages award against the ExxonMobil Corp. was largely overturned by Maryland's highest court asked for more time to seek reconsideration.

In a three-page motion filed Friday, the attorneys representing plaintiffs in an underground gasoline leak at a Jacksonville Exxon station in 2006 said they need more time to respond to the Feb. 26 Court of Appeals ruling because of the complexity and impact of the case.

Three lawyers from the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos are asking for a 30-day extension to April 29. They also want to expand their written argument to 25 pages from the usual limit of 15.

The request says extra time and space are needed "in light of the significant stakes in this litigation, the need to analyze, apply and address the impact of the Court's various independent rulings on each of the more than 150 separate judgments" returned by the jury in June 2011.

H. Russell Smouse, one of the three lawyers, declined to comment on the motion. If the extension is not granted, the motion for reconsideration would have to be filed by Thursday.

The Maryland Court of Appeals issues a couple of hundred decisions a year but seldom grants motions for reconsideration, said Terry Ruffatto, deputy clerk.

"I don't know if we even track that figure because it's so rare," he said, guessing that it's happened about five times in the five years he's been at the court.

Andrew Baida, a Baltimore attorney who specializes in appellate law, said there are no explicit rules for arguing for reconsideration in the state appeals courts. In the federal system, he said, it usually would be necessary to show that a "factual or legal matter was overlooked," or that the law changed since the opinion was made, or the ruling conflicts with another court decision.

Because the court ruling was decided unanimously by seven judges, getting reconsideration could be more difficult, said Baida, a partner with Rosenberg Martin Greenberg.

The court on Feb. 26 issued two opinions in two cases arising from the underground leak of some 26,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline that occurred over the course of 34 days in January and February 2006. With no public water system in Jacksonville, area families and businesses depend on wells for drinking water.

In the first case, argued by the Snyder & Snyder law firm, a Baltimore County Circuit Court jury in 2009 awarded about 90 plaintiffs $150 million in compensatory damages. Michael Snyder, whose firm is not a party to the Angelos request for more time, said his firm is "continuing to weigh our options."

In the second case, argued by the Angelos firm, a jury in 2011 after a six-month trial awarded about 150 families and businesses $496 million in compensatory damages and just over $1 billion in punitive damages.

The jury's punitive damage award hinged on its finding that ExxonMobil was guilty of fraud in its dealings with local and state officials in its reports on the cleanup, and in a misleading sign posted for a few days at the station after the leak was found.

The high court rejected the fraud verdict outright, and also rejected claims by many plaintiffs for the cost of medical monitoring and for emotional stress due to fear of becoming ill from contamination. Some claims were affirmed and some were sent back to the Baltimore County Circuit Court for new trials.

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