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Jurors will award punitive damages in Exxon leak case

Exxon Mobil Corp. should pay punitive damages to the second group of Jacksonville residents to sue over a massive 2006 gas leak, the jury deciding the case said Tuesday.

While the amount has yet to be determined, the award of punitive damages indicates the jury found the company liable for fraud or other intentional misconduct.

The six jurors, all women, reached their verdict on liability and compensatory damages in Baltimore County Circuit Court on Tuesday morning following more than six days of deliberations and a trial that began in January. The compensatory damage awards will not be announced until the punitive damages are also determined.

After the jury announced that punitive damages were warranted, both sides presented arguments as to the amount.

Charles G. Bernstein, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, suggested punitive damages should be “three to five times” the compensatory damage award.

Bernstein told jurors they have a chance to “deter” Exxon Mobil and prevent future incidents. He compared punitive damages to an organ transplant, with jurors giving Exxon Mobil a heart.

“They’re like the Tin Man,” said Bernstein, of The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos PC in Baltimore.

James F. Sanders, Exxon Mobil’s lead lawyer, began his argument by offering another apology for the 25,000-plus-gallon gasoline leak, which went undetected for more than five weeks. He reminded jurors that Exxon has been working to clean up the spill since it was discovered and will remain in Jacksonville until given permission to leave by state officials.

He noted the company was fined $4 million by the Maryland Department of the Environment in 2008. Based on state regulations, he said, the maximum penalty the company would face for the leak would be $17 million.

Sanders said he “respectfully disagreed” with the jury’s decision to award punitive damages and asked them to remember the heart and compassion showed by Exxon employees on the witness stand.

“It hurts,” he told the jury about its verdict.

Bernstein, though, urged jurors to look past Exxon Mobil’s repeated apologies.

“They’re a day late and two dollars short,” he said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to spill gasoline anywhere and then wiggle out of it.”

Judge Robert N. Dugan dismissed the jurors following arguments. They will start deliberations on punitive damages at 1 p.m. Wednesday and break for the day no later than 7:30 p.m., Dugan assured them.

The plaintiffs, collectively known as the Allison plaintiffs, consist of 154 households, seven commercial property owners and two business owners. The plaintiffs had asked for damages for emotional distress, medical monitoring, diminution of property value and fraud.

They argued Exxon Mobil repeatedly failed to follow through on safety measures promised for the station and that its cleanup efforts have been half-hearted.

Lawyers for Exxon Mobil argued the leak detector was improperly reset by contract technicians after alarming on the first day. The defense lawyers told jurors the cleanup efforts have been effective and punitive damages should not be awarded.

In March 2009, the jury hearing the first group’s trial awarded about $150 million in compensatory damages to 88 other families but did not award punitive damages. A three-judge panel on the Court of Special Appeals heard arguments on Exxon Mobil’s appeal in January and has yet to issue an opinion; however, a hearing by the full court has been ordered for the end of September.