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Second Exxon Mobil trial begins

Exxon Mobil Corp. has repeatedly failed to follow through on safety measures promised for its Jacksonville station, resulting in a massive gasoline leak in 2006 and a half-hearted cleanup effort since, lawyers for hundreds of plaintiffs said Monday.

The four-and-a-half hour opening statement, given by a team of three lawyers from The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, marks the start of what is expected to be a six-month trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court and the second mass-action lawsuit stemming from a 25,000-plus-gallon gasoline leak that went undetected for more than five weeks.

The plaintiffs, collectively known as the Allison plaintiffs, are seeking damages for emotional distress, medical monitoring, diminution of property value and fraud.

“Exxon has damaged and probably ruined the Jacksonville aquifer,” said Theodore M. Flerlage Jr., the plaintiffs’ lead counsel. “People no longer have the comfort of a ready supply of fresh, clean water.”

Flerlage said Exxon’s “outrageous misconduct” dates back to 1983, when it appealed the county’s decision to deny a gas station at the corner of Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill Road. Contamination from a 1980 gasoline leak at another station down the road had spread onto the site, as well as in neighbors’ drinking wells. But an Exxon environmental engineer told county officials the company would take “extraordinary measures” for safety, a phrase Flerlage repeatedly used.

No secondary containment wall was built around the Jacksonville gas tanks as Exxon promised, and the existing containment system was removed in 1992, Flerlage and co-counsel Gary J. Ignatowski said. The underground pipes also were buried too close to one another, leading to the drilling accident in 2006 that started the leak.

“The evidence will show Exxon took a gamble with the aquifer, only it wasn’t their gamble to take,” Ignatowski said. “It was our clients’.”

The lawyers spoke to the six female jurors as well as the six alternates, four of whom are men. Judge Robert N. Dugan noted before opening statements that two jurors had been excused between jury selection last month and the start of the trial but did not say why.

Dugan’s packed courtroom was wired with a projection screen, two large flat-screen televisions for the jury and smaller TVs for the lawyers and the judge. At least 10 lawyers from the Angelos firm sat behind the plaintiffs’ table, while Exxon Mobil had at least a half-dozen lawyers present, as well as Steve C. Polkey, the company’s global retail asset manager, who also took part in the first trial.

A video camera provided closed-circuit viewing of the proceedings to more plaintiffs watching in an overflow courtroom, which was mostly filled. The plaintiffs comprise 154 households, seven commercial property owners and two business owners.

Ronald E. Richardson, the third plaintiffs’ lawyer to speak, alleged Exxon Mobil created an artificial housing market by only testing wells within a half-mile radius of the gas station and providing bottled water to select families, leaving everyone else to believe their homes were not affected by the leak.

“Comparable sales don’t work if the buyers don’t know about the contamination,” Richardson said, adding that expert testimony will show all the nearby homes lost 60 percent of their market value because of the leak.

The lawyers’ opening statement was methodical and at times technical, covering topics from hydrogeology to the dangers of methyl tertiary butyl ether, the gasoline additive MTBE, which has been shown to cause cancer in animals, though not conclusively in humans.

Perhaps the most theatrical moment was when Flerlage showed a video shot by one of his clients of a testing well being drilled. Flerlage was forced to yell over the din as images of torn-up backyards and roads appeared on screen in contrast to the lush landscape and stately homes that had been shown moments before.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Flerlage shouted, “this was the paradise lost.”

Flerlage also told jurors the plaintiffs would prove fraud and intentional conduct on Exxon Mobil’s part, which would entitle the plaintiffs to punitive damages.

“The evidence will show Exxon doesn’t do anything accidentally,” he said. “Exxon calculates everything.”

James F. Sanders, Exxon Mobil’s lead counsel, is scheduled to give his opening statement Tuesday morning. The plaintiffs’ first witness could be called as early as Tuesday afternoon.