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Expert links anxiety to Exxon Mobil leak

Dr. Abdul Malik

Jurors in Jacksonville residents’ mass-action lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp. received a refresher course of sorts Monday as the trial stemming from a massive gas station leak entered its third month.

Dr. Abdul Malik, a Towson psychiatrist hired by The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos PC to evaluate their clients, took the witness stand to discuss his meetings with plaintiffs who have already testified in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Malik gave his expert opinion under direct questioning of each plaintiff he met, a photo of the person appearing on screens and monitors throughout the courtroom as he spoke. Some type of anxiety disorder was the most common diagnosis Monday morning, and Malik largely traced the plaintiffs’ condition to one event.

“The patient’s disorder was directly related to Exxon’s spillage,” he said of one plaintiff.

The “spillage” was a 25,000-plus-gallon gasoline leak that went undetected for more than five weeks in early 2006. The plaintiffs, collectively known as the Allison plaintiffs, are seeking damages for emotional distress, medical monitoring, diminution of property value and fraud.

The Allison plaintiffs include 154 households, seven commercial property owners and two business owners. The steady stream of plaintiffs on the witness stand has been broken up with expert testimony, including from a hydrogeolgist, and videotaped depositions of Exxon Mobil employees or contractors.

The trial, expected to last six months, has been a relatively low-key affair so far, with none of the theatrical fireworks or courtroom drama of the first trial related to the leak. The 88 households, collectively known as the Alban plaintiffs, in the first case were awarded about $150 million in damages in March 2009 after a five-month trial, a verdict Exxon Mobil is appealing.

Malik this week only will discuss plaintiffs who have testified so far; Judge Robert N. Dugan, over defense objections, is allowing Malik to be called as a witness “more than once” as more plaintiffs testify.

Malik’s notes, some of which he read aloud under questioning by Charles G. Bernstein, echoed what plaintiffs’ told jurors.

“She was going to sleep thinking about the water situation and waking up thinking about it,” Malik said of one plaintiff.

“The patient is able to function in his usual ways, but his quality of life has been affected,” he said of another.

Malik also recited direct quotes from plaintiffs that had a familiar ring to jurors:

“I’m sitting on a piece of property, but it’s not a home,” one told him.

“I keep thinking about it. I worry about my kids getting cancer,” another said.

“You don’t realize how much you use water until you’re conscious of it,” said a third.

James F. Sanders, Exxon Mobil’s lead lawyer, called multiple bench conferences during Malik’s testimony and tried to prevent the doctor from repeating plaintiffs’ statements that Dugan ruled inadmissible during their testimony — for example, a Jacksonville Elementary School teacher who said one student died of a brain tumor and another had leukemia.

“The health of a child is something that weighs on every teacher,” Bernstein argued. “Her concern about the children directly relates to her health.”

Dugan acknowledged that teachers worry about their students but was not persuaded.

“It’s not consistent with my previous ruling,” he said.

Malik’s direct examination is scheduled to continue Tuesday morning.