Maryland Court Reverses $1B Verdict Against Exxon

Ian Becker

Yesterday, Maryland's highest court of appeals struck down a 2011 fraud ruling against ExxonMobil Corp over an underground gas leak in Baltimore County that ran unchecked for 37 days, spilling 26,000 gallons of gasoline and poisoning the local groundwater. The ruling reverses nearly $1.65 billion in previous judgments finding Exxon guilty of fraud for providing misinformation to Jacksonville residents and for dodging responsibility. The prosecution argued that the spill went unnoticed because of a substandard and outdated detection system of which Exxon officials were aware. Although the new opinion notes that Exxon's actions following the spill were "imperfect," and that representatives of the corporation could have been more forthcoming, the charges of fraud were thrown out, as well as all the punitive damages previously promised. Community members of Jacksonville, Md., have been living in difficult circumstances since the 2006 leak. The community's well water is no longer potable, so residents must purchase bottled water for cooking and drinking. For fear of potentially toxic byproducts in the water supply, they try to restrict their showers to around two minutes. From The Baltimore Sun: Hans Wilhelmsen, whose family was awarded $13.9 million in compensation and $47 million in punitive damages — the highest damages award in that case — said he spoke with about 10 other plaintiffs during the course of Tuesday to share their thoughts about the decision.   "I think everybody was blown away," said Wilhelmsen. He said other plaintiffs he spoke with could not understand how an appeals court could reverse a finding of fraud made by a jury that heard evidence for months. A key component of the court's reversal was that residents had not shown sufficient evidence of adverse health effects to justify collecting damages from Exxon.

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