Trials & Litigation

State's top court tosses $1B punitives award against Exxon in community gas-spill case

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Maryland’s top court has nixed a $1 billion punitive damages award against ExxonMobil Corp. in an environmental case brought over a 2006 gasoline spill in Jacksonville, finding that the fraud claims on which the 2011 verdict was based were not proven.

In a 129-page opinion (PDF), the Maryland Court of Appeals explains its reasoning. In a companion opinion (PDF), the appeals court also reduced the amount given to plaintiffs in a related 2009 case in which $150 million in damages was initially awarded by a jury, the Baltimore Sun reports. The Associated Press has a story, too.

The twin Tuesday rulings stunned plaintiffs in the well-to-do community about 20 miles from Baltimore, who say they are still recovering from the 26,000-gallon gas station spill. It occurred after a drilling error that cut a pressurized underground supply line went undetected for over a month. Although a cleanup and monitoring continue, plaintiffs have not been able to show actual illness as a result of gasoline exposure, limiting their damages, the Sun article recounts. Meanwhile, the community is reliant on well water.

“We absolutely did not expect this. It leaves us with such a sense of defeat because we are still living with this nightmare,” said Susan Lazzaro, whose family lives within a mile of the original site of the spill and was awarded $5.6 million in the 2011 verdict. She and her family use bottled water to drink and cook with, she said, and take 2-minute showers. In addition to health concerns, she and her husband worry about the adverse effect on the value of their home, which they had planned to rely on in retirement, according to Lazzaro.

Attorney H. Russell Smouse is with the Peter G. Angelos law firm, which represented plaintiffs in the 2011 case. He said his side is “still evaluating the avenues that remain available.”

An Exxon spokesman, however, said the Maryland Court of Appeals verdicts got it right:

“The evidence showed that we acted appropriately after the accident and the court has agreed,” Charlie Engelmann told the Sun in an email. “We have apologized to the Jacksonville community and we remain ready to compensate those who were truly damaged by this unfortunate accident. We will continue the cleanup.”

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