Families settling in Exxon gasoline leak case

43 Jacksonville households reach confidential agreements

January 27, 2014|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Nearly a year after Maryland's highest court tossed out most of a $1.65 billion jury verdict against ExxonMobil Corp. in connection with a 2006 underground gasoline leak in northern Baltimore County, 43 families have settled their cases rather than return for new trials.

Theodore M. Flerlage Jr., a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Monday that two groups that had been scheduled for trial this past Monday and next Monday have settled their cases. They're the latest of four groups that have settled this month, leaving about 50 cases to be resolved. Settlement terms are confidential, Flerlage said.

"We're moving along with them as they come up," said Flerlage, one of the lawyers with the Peter G. Angelos firm who represented people in roughly 150 households who brought suit against ExxonMobil for compensation and punitive damages. The underground leak at an Exxon station in Jacksonville early in 2006 spilled about 26,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline at the central crossroads in a community that depends on wells for drinking water.

ExxonMobil spokesman Todd Spitler declined to confirm settlements. In an email statement, the company said: "ExxonMobil has sought to engage in meaningful settlement negotiations and stands ready to compensate those who were truly damaged by this unfortunate accident. "

In a trial that lasted six months in 2011, Flerlage's legal team accused ExxonMobil of deliberate fraud, which became the basis for a claim for punitive damages above the claim for compensation. At the end of June that year, a jury returned a verdict for $495 million in compensation for lost property value, medical monitoring and emotional distress, and more than $1 billion in punitive damages. In all, the total award was about $1.65 billion.

The highest single award went to a family that had several properties affected by the spill: nearly $61 million, about $47 million of which was in punitive damages.

Last February, the Maryland Court of Appeals stunned the families by striking down the fraud and punitive-damage portion of the verdict, and returned for retrial more than 90 cases, most demanding compensation for lost property value. Three cases claimed damages for emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of the property, Flerlage said.

He said six groups of about 50 cases remain, scheduled for late February through early June. If plaintiffs cannot agree to settlement terms, they could still choose to have their claims brought to trial, Flerlage said.

While gasoline contamination turned up in many household wells, no one claimed to have been sickened or physically injured from exposure.

ExxonMobil is still cleaning up the leak, focusing chiefly on an area about a half-mile in radius from where the station once stood at the intersection of Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads, said Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is monitoring the work. So far, 104 million gallons of groundwater have been recovered, treated, tested and pumped back into two streams, Apperson said.

Since 2011, all drinking water wells have tested below the 20 parts per billion concentration of a gasoline additive, MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, that would require state action, he said. Of 250 wells tested, 12 once showed MTBE above the action level, and in those cases the state required ExxonMobil to install filtration systems and conduct regular water tests.


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