TOWSON — ExxonMobil Corp. dodged a billion-dollar bullet Thursday when a Baltimore County jury found it had not committed fraud in connection with a massive 2006 gasoline leak in Jacksonville.
Even so, the company indicated it might challenge the jury’s awards of about $150 million in compensation to 88 families, suggesting the verdicts were, in part, punitive damages in disguise.
“We find the amount awarded inconsistent with the verdict in which the jury rejected the punitive damages claims,” the company said in a statement. “The compensatory damages should not be so high as to essentially be punitive instead of truly compensating for actual harm caused by the spill.”
Those were among the few fighting words issued Thursday, however, as both sides expressed relief that a trial that began in October in Baltimore County Circuit Court has finally concluded.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said Stephen L. Snyder, of Snyder, Weltchek & Snyder in Pikesville, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel.
Snyder said his firm had no plans to appeal the jury’s finding that Exxon was not guilty of fraud by concealment, which would have led to punitive damages.
“All in all, we’re satisfied,” he said.
The jury of four women and two men needed seven days of deliberation to reach a verdict and nearly two hours to report their decision to visiting Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr., who presided over a standing-room-only courtroom.
Scores of verdict sheets
The jurors filled out 88 separate verdict sheets, one for each plaintiff family. (Two families owned two properties, making the total number of homes in the case 90.) For each verdict sheet, the jury first ruled the plaintiffs had not proven fraud by concealment on the part of Exxon.
Residents alleged the company ignored a history of reliability problems with leak detectors such as the one at the Jacksonville station, where a 25,000-plus-gallon leak began Jan. 13, 2006.
The detector alarmed the first day, but the leak was not discovered until 37 days later after an inventory discrepancy was noticed.
Exxon maintained technicians responding to the station that first day improperly reset the detector, essentially rendering it incapable of alarming for the leak.
“We are grateful and pleased the jury saw the facts that way,” said James F. Sanders, Exxon’s lead counsel.
The jury also ruled on each verdict sheet that Exxon’s actions caused the plaintiffs’ injuries. Jurors then moved to damages, awarding plaintiffs money in some or all of three categories: diminution of property value, medical monitoring and non-economic damages.
Jurors awarded more than $61 million for diminution of property value, an average of $693,000 per household. Several residents said they received amounts equivalent to the price of their home prior to the spill, with values ranging from $300,000 to more than $1 million.
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Jurors awarded more than $14 million for medical monitoring, an average of $164,000 per household. Residents had requested medical monitoring because of exposure to methyl tertiary butyl ether, a gasoline additive known as MTBE. The additive has not been conclusively determined to cause cancer in humans, and both sides offered expert testimony discussing residents’ exposure risk.
Snyder was particularly pleased his clients received medical monitoring compensation.
“The jury recognized the constituents of MTBE can cause problems,” he said.
Jurors also awarded more than $71 million in non-economic damages — in most cases, $500,000 per adult and $50,000 per child. Snyder, in his closing argument, suggested jurors award $2.5 million for each adult plaintiff.
About a dozen plaintiff households did not receive any non-economic damages because residents in those homes did not testify during the trial. Other plaintiffs received nearly $1 million for non-economic damages, an amount that will likely be capped by the judge at $665,000 under Maryland law.
The compensatory damage award comes six months after Exxon agreed to pay $4 million to settle the Maryland Department of the Environment’s claims arising from the leak. The company has already spent $38 million on cleanup and remediation efforts in Jacksonville and will continue working until “the job is complete,” Sanders said.
An Exxon spokesman would not comment on how the awards and costs might affect the company’s bottom line. The company reported net profit of $42.5 billion in 2008, the highest ever recorded by a company.
Residents took copious notes when their respective verdict sheets were read aloud. The air seemingly went out of the courtroom after the jury did not award punitive damages with its first verdict sheet, meaning it would not be awarding punitive damages to any plaintiff.
After that initial letdown, however, residents quietly and attentively listened to each verdict sheet. Husbands and wives held hands or each other before and after their award was announced.
Once the jury was dismissed, hugs were shared with neighbors, lawyers and even several of the alternate jurors who came back to hear the verdict.
“It’s very emotional,” said Ron Diedeman, one of the plaintiffs. “Basically, I feel like we got a fair treatment.”
“It’s hard to go up against Exxon,” added Jodi Howe, another plaintiff. “For a small firm to go up against a giant like that, they hit home run after home run.”
One juror told the Associated Press the jury sympathized with residents but wrestled with how much to award.
“We’re happy for the plaintiffs,” Steve Scazis said. “We hope they’re happy and moving on with their lives.”
Scazis and his fellow jurors received a round of applause from the entire courtroom after the final verdict was read. Baldwin said he would ask Judge John G. Turnbull II, the county’s administrative judge, to draft a letter “forever excusing” them from jury duty.
“There are just no words to express how much we appreciate you,” he said.
Still to come
While the jurors are finished with the Jacksonville leak, the court itself is not.
A separate “mass-action” claim against Exxon stemming from the Jacksonville spill is still pending. That case, with more than 250 plaintiffs, is scheduled to go to trial before Judge Susan Souder in January 2010.
The plaintiffs’ lead counsel in that case, Theodore M. Flerlage Jr., congratulated Snyder.
“The verdicts are well justified,” said Flerlage, a lawyer with The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos P.C.
Flerlage and colleagues sat in on much of Snyder’s trial. He was impressed by the technology used in the courtroom and praised the plaintiffs’ testimonies as “impressive.”
“It’s interesting to watch the effect of the testimony on the jury,” he said.
Flerlage declined to discuss his litigation approach, but said it is developing differently than the one Snyder presented.
“There are a lot of other facts out there,” he said.
Flerlage added he did not anticipate his firm’s case taking as long as Snyder’s did.
“I am blunt and to the point,” he said.
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View Danny’s previous articles about the Exxon trial here.