Answer to ethics question helped to guide CSA judges in Exxon Mobil opinion

Maybe we could’ve seen coming the confusion over the Court of Special Appeals’ in banc hearing of Exxon Mobil’s appeal of Jacksonville residents’ $150 million jury verdict. After all, the judges themselves were concerned about who could hear the case.

The Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee issued an opinion last August — one month before the hearing — titled “Circumstances In Which Appellate Judge May Participate In Appellate Review Involving A Corporate Appellant In Which Such Judge Owns Or Has Owned Stock.”

(The “corporate appellant” is Exxon Mobil, unless there was another party in Maryland appealing what the ethics opinion calls a “$147 million judgment” that I and my colleagues did not know about.)

Anyways, the ethics opinion discusses three unnamed judges facing the following dilemmas:

– Judge A and Judge A’s spouse own shares of the Exxon Mobil, and the company is also in Judge A’s IRA.

– Judge B’s IRA formerly included 75 shares of the stock sold during the summer at a profit “for reasons completely unrelated to” the pending appeal, according to the ethics opinion.

– Judge C owns 350 shares of Exxon Mobil stock. Judge C acquired such shares within the last year but has not indicated the current value of such ownership.

The opinion concluded that Judge B could hear the case because the judge no longer had a financial interest in Exxon Mobil. On the other hand, “to the extent a particular disposition of the pending appeal might ‘substantially affect’ the values of the interests of Judges A and C in the appellant, and thereby cause such judges’ impartiality to reasonably be questioned, they should disqualify themselves,” the opinion states.

Judge James R. Eyler, the committee’s chairman, and retired Judge James A. Kenney III, a committee member, recused themselves from the ethics opinion.

Incidentally, Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser and Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. and Judge Christopher B. Kehoe recused themselves from the in banc court’s 321-page opinion.

Exxon trial update: They saw the sign

After four months and hundreds of witnesses, the Jacksonville plaintiffs have rested their case against Exxon Mobil Corp. stemming from a massive 2006 gasoline leak.

I popped into the courtroom in Towson on Thursday morning and found Judge Robert N. Dugan hearing Exxon Mobil’s motions to dismiss the case. He denied a defense motion to dismiss the fraud count while I was there. In the process, he inquired about something that he has been wondering about since the beginning of the trial.

Much has been made by plaintiffs in this trial and the previous one about a sign placed outside the gas station soon after the leak was discovered notifying residents the station was being “remodeled.”

“It’s inconceivable Exxon intended to deceive anyone with the sign,” Tom Dundon, one of the companies lawyers, said Thursday as he began to argue the motion to dismiss the fraud count.

Dugan, who can be animated from the bench, was clearly startled by the assertion.

“Why is that?” he said, his voice going up an octave or two as residents in the courtroom laughed.

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No laughing gas needed

Lawyers for Jacksonville residents and ExxonMobil Corp. are back in Baltimore County Circuit Court on Thursday and Friday for pretrial hearings on the experts the plaintiffs are seeking to use in the upcoming gas station leak trial.

(The most recent start date for the trial was Monday, but that has been postponed until the end of November.)

Thursday’s hearing began with some discovery motions filed by The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos PC, which represents approximately 450 individuals and 150 households in Jacksonville. Lawyers for the plaintiffs wanted documents about the remediation effort from Kleinfelder, which worked on the spill site.

A lawyer for Kleinfelder said the documents would be available by next week. When pressed by the plaintiffs as to the amount of information, Judge Robert N. Dugan jumped in.

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An appeal with some weight

The Court of Special Appeals received a special delivery earlier this week: the original case record from the $150 million verdict in favor of 89 Jacksonville homeowners against ExxonMobil Corp. A judge upheld the award in September, at which point Exxon noted its appeal.

It took a truck to haul “27 boxes and one plastic map” to Annapolis, according to court records. A breakdown of the boxes:

  • 8 contained the complaints filed by the homeowners in the mass-action suit
  • 6 were marked “Alban, et al v. Exxon,” the lead case in the trial (the plaintiffs were collectively called the Alban plaintiffs)
  • 5 contained exhibits
  • 3 contained jury questionnaires
  • 2 contained transcripts
  • 2 contained “memos, appendices and verdict sheets”
  • 1 contained jury selection sheets

Arguments in the case take place in September. In preparation, I’ve heard Exxon made copies of all of the exhibits at a cost approaching five figures.

Exxon update: MDE will consider the request to reconsider

Following reports by our own Danny Jacobs and others that the Maryland Department of the Environment had decided to lift some of Exxon’s remediation requirements in the area of the massive 2006 Jacksonville gasoline leak — a decision made without input from those who live near the site, and which the agency seemed loathe to revisit — MDE Secretary Shari T. Wilson heard from her boss.

The upshot was an after-business-hours e-mail to the media from Wilson’s office. Received here at 6:24 p.m. Tuesday, it says, in part:

MDE today received a request from Governor Martin O’Malley to carefully and expeditiously review the citizen’s request to reconsider the decision allowing ExxonMobil to discontinue supplying bottled water. MDE will, of course, do so. This review, and previous decisions, are reviewed by scientists with expertise in groundwater, public health, and subsurface remediation.

Just to be clear, Wilson isn’t saying MDE has changed its mind, or that it will change its mind — only that it will think about the homeowners’ request that it change its mind.

Exxon hearing, trial postponed

A motions hearing scheduled for today was postponed in a mass-action lawsuit filed by Jacksonville residents against Exxon Mobil Corp. for a 25,000-gallon-plus leak at a local gas station in early 2006.

Lawyers on both sides have a bit more time to iron out their pre-trial issues, however – in July, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Susan Souder agreed to revise the case’s scheduling order, making the trial’s new start date Oct. 4, 2010. The case is estimated to end Feb. 28, 2011. 

The trial had been set for January, and Souder said during the July hearing the delay would also help ensure full staffing of the daily docket. Two of Souder’s colleagues, John O. Hennegan and Lawrence R. Daniels, announced earlier this year they would be retiring when their terms expire in November.

Because of the size of the case  — more than 400 plaintiffs, represented by The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos – you can always tell when a hearing is scheduled: the daily Circuit Court docket online grows to 25 or more pages (compared to five or six on a typical day) and the docket shown on video boards in the courthouse balloons to more than 50 pages (compared to a dozen or so pages normally).

Exxon plaintiffs, four months later

The last time I was in court for the first Exxon trial* it was kind of like Christmas morning (or the first night of Chanukah, if that analogy makes more sense to you). There was a sense of anticipation bordering on giddiness, in part because everyone was awaiting a verdict and because a five-month trial was finally ending.

The mood felt a bit different Wednesday as post-trial motions were heard. The courtroom was still packed, but that was in part because the hearing had been moved to a smaller courtroom. A majority of the plaintiffs who attended were the “die-hards,” the ones I saw almost on a daily basis during the five-month trial; the woman who brought needlepoint during testimony brought it Wednesday, too.  

I greeted a couple of plaintiffs I had gotten to know, including a few I wrote about in the aftermath of the verdict. Many had told me in March the verdict brought closure, so Wednesday’s hearing was, in a way, opening old wounds. But it seemed to me much of the anger and anguish had disappeared, as if the verdict did in fact lift a large weight off residents’ shoulders. In its place was some level of contentment coupled with the resignation (and possibly frustration) that they might be facing a lengthy appeals process before they see any of the $150 million the jury awarded four months ago.

Stephen L. Snyder, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, touched on that point as he finished his arguments. He theorized that Exxon’s limited arguments on its motions (lead counsel James F. Sanders talked for less than an hour of the four-hour hearing) meant the company felt visiting Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr. would not drastically reduce the jury’s verdict, so it would save its arguments for the appellate courts.

“We just hope you’re not going to give Exxon a reduction that they are not expecting to get,” Snyder said.

His clients laughed and applauded.

 *Another set of plaintiffs, represented by The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos P.C., will have their trial in January.

Exxon deja vu? Kind of

An Exxon station in Northern Baltimore county closed last week because of an underground leak that apparently went unnoticed for several weeks. Exxon has taken full responsibility for the problem and has agreed to reimburse those affected by the leak.

Sound familiar? In fact, this Exxon station is located on Mount Carmel Road in Hereford (I-83, Exit 27). And the underground leak involved brine, a salty solution used to prevent the gasoline from freezing. The brine, which sits outside the gasoline tank, entered a regular, unleaded gasoline tank through a hole in the lining, according to news reports.

The contaminated gas has caused approximately 100 cars to shut down, local mechanics said. The mechanics have to empty the car’s gas tank and replace its fuel injector and pump.

Exxon has set up a 24-hour hotline for any people dealing with car problems from the station. The Maryland Department of the Environment, meanwhile, is looking into possible fines against Exxon for failing to report the leak; it learned of the problem from a citizen who saw the station’s gas pumps closed one day last week.

Both Exxon and MDE have said the leak did not spread into the environment.

Chevron’s “Exxon problem” in the Amazon

I had a bit of a flashback while watching “60 Minutes” the other night. Scott Pelley reported on residents suing an oil company over groundwater contimation, with alleged damages in the billions.

But this wasn’t Jacksonville — and it wasn’t ExxonMobil Corp. Rather, it was Amazon residents in east Ecuador suing Chevron Corp. for $27 billion for damages incurred during more than 20 years of oil drilling. Residents through a New York-based trial lawyer allege Texaco, now a Chevron subsidiary, didn’t clean up hundreds of pits filled with the byproducts of the drilling. Many of the pits have sat untouched for years.

The case, which has been going on for 16 years, will soon be decided by an Ecuadoran judge whose courtroom sits on the third floor of a shopping mall. How the case reached that point was the most interesting part of the story, as producers used old news footage to chart the lawsuit’s course.

The story has been criticized as a “PR job” for the plaintiffs. I wouldn’t go that far, but the video at the end of the story showing oil floating on top of an Amazon River tributary is pretty compelling.

Video: Behind the scenes of the Exxon trial

At 7:15 a.m. on March 12, a couple of hours before a slew of residents and reporters descended on the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse for the Exxon verdicts, Danny Jacobs was waiting outside the courtroom.

He’d been waiting for that moment for five months.

As some of our readers know, Danny had been diligently following the Exxon leak trial in Baltimore County.

To our knowledge, Danny was the only reporter to extensively cover the trial. He wrote more than 30 stories in total; as a result he became a familiar face in the courtroom, developing relationships with a number of the plaintiffs and lawyers from both sides.

Although there are still more Jacksonville residents who await trial with Exxon – and more work to be done on Danny’s end – here are Danny’s reflections of his coverage of the trial.