About 160 Baltimore County households and businesses have lost a Supreme Court bid for reinstatement of $1.5 billion in damages against Exxon Mobil Corp. stemming from a massive gasoline leak in Jacksonville in 2006.
Without comment, the justices this week let stand a Maryland Court of Appeals decision that overturned the $1 billion punitive damages award based on the jury’s finding that Exxon was liable for fraud for failing to post information about the leak and to inform the public. The state court also struck the compensatory damages award of nearly $500 million, finding the evidence insufficient to support an award for fear of cancer and that the awards for property damages duplicated the awards for loss of enjoyment of their property.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not participate in the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Jacksonville residents’ appeal. Alito did not publicly disclose why he recused himself, but his financial disclosure statement for calendar 2012 showed stock holdings in Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil.
Exxon had waived its right to file responsive papers in the Supreme Court proceeding.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, H. Russell Smouse, declined to comment on the high court’s action. Smouse is with the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos P.C.
Exxon’s attorney, Charles P. Scheeler, did not return a telephone message seeking comment. Scheeler is with DLA Piper U.S. LLP in Baltimore.
The case was Albright et al. v. Exxon Mobil Corp., Supreme Court No. 13-383. Retrial of some of the plaintiffs’ claims is scheduled to begin in Baltimore County Circuit Court on Jan. 6.
A separate group of 88 Jacksonville residents harmed by the same spill also had their damages award overturned by the Court of Appeals in that same February decision. Those residents, referred to as the Ford plaintiffs due to the lead litigant, have not filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. While some of their claims were also remanded, that trial date has not yet been set, according to online court records.
The Ford plaintiffs’ attorney, Stephen L. Snyder, did not return a telephone message seeking comment. Snyder is with The Law Office of Snyder & Snyder in Pikesville.
The Jacksonville residents, in two separate mass-action lawsuits, alleged that Exxon ignored a history of reliability problems with leak detectors such as the one at the Jacksonville station, where the 25,000-plus-gallon leak began Jan. 13, 2006.
The detector armed the first day, but the leak was not discovered until 37 days later, after an inventory discrepancy was noticed.
Exxon said technicians responding to the station that first day improperly reset the detector, essentially rendering it incapable of alarming for the leak.
The company reached a $4 million settlement with the Maryland Department of the Environment in September 2008 related to the spill. The company has spent more than 10 times that amount on the cleanup effort under MDE’s direction.
The Ford case (Baltimore County Circuit Court #03-C-06010892) went to trial in October 2008 and the jury returned its verdicts in March 2009. The awards of $150 million included $71 million in non-economic damages, $61 million for diminution of property value and more than $14 million in medical monitoring. That jury rejected the plaintiffs’ claims of fraud by concealment and therefore did not award any punitive damages.
The Albright case (Baltimore County Circuit Court #03-C07003809) went to trial in 2011. The $1.5 billion verdict came in June 2012.