Exxon Liable for Gas Spill; Jury Awards $150 Million

A jury awarded about $150 million to 91 families Thursday who sued Exxon Mobil over wells contaminated by a gasoline leak north of Baltimore.

The jury did not find that Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil committed fraud or intentional misconduct and therefore it could not impose punitive damages. The plaintiffs had sought several billion dollars.

An underground storage tank bled about 26,000 gallons of gasoline over 37 days in Jacksonville, a small, affluent community about 20 miles north of Baltimore, before the leak was discovered in February 2006.

After a trial that lasted five months, the jury awarded a majority of the families in the lawsuit about $1 million each for emotional distress. Each family also received the full assessed value of its home and money to cover lifetime medical monitoring.

The lead plaintiffs' attorney Stephen L. Snyder called the verdict a victory.

Exxon attorney Jim Sanders said he was satisfied with the jury's decision, but was uncertain whether the company would appeal.

"It was an accident," Sanders said of the spill.


Exxon paid a $4 million settlement to the state — the largest civil penalty ever levied by the Maryland Department of the Environment. The company said in a statement Thursday that it has spent $38 million cleaning up the spill.

Bob Babcock, one of the plaintiffs, said the cleanup effort had not been successful. His well has shown higher levels of MTBE — a gasoline additive that the Environmental Protection Agency calls a potential carcinogen at high doses — each time it has been tested, Babcock said.

While several plaintiffs said afterward that the verdict was fair, Babcock was not among them.

"We still have contaminated water," he said. "I think Exxon dodged a big bullet today by not having punitive damages awarded."

Another plaintiff, Ron Diedeman, said that while he was satisfied with the verdict, the gas leak had left a permanent stain on the town.

"After all this, nobody's going to buy a house out there," Diedeman said. With the damage award, he said, "I'm going to break even, because I'm not going to have to sell my house."