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Exxon accused of ?fraud? in massive gas leak

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Crime,Luke Broadwater
Backed by scores of clients who spilled over into the hallway, the flashy attorney Stephen L. Snyder took his $1 billion lawsuit against Exxon to court Tuesday. 

“It’s not a contest to see whose clothes are the flashiest, because we know I’d win,” Snyder told jurors during his marathon opening statement that lasted for hours in Baltimore County Circuit Court. 

Snyder accused Exxon officials of leaking more than 25,000 gallons of gasoline in Jacksonville two years ago and then committing “fraud by deception” in the pollution’s aftermath.

His 300 clients filled the large courtroom and many stood in the hallway straining to hear.

“I want to introduce my clients,” Snyder said, motioning to the packed courtroom. “Are there others outside in the hall?”
“Yes!” many shouted and raised their hands.

Residents are seeking $1 billion in damages from the February 2006 spill — when officials estimated 675 gallons of fuel leaked 37 consecutive days from an underwater storage tank.


Snyder played a video for jurors depicting the Jacksonville-Phoenix area  as abounding with “agricultural life.”

“The signs of nature were replaced,” he said, showing pictures of heavy machinery Exxon brought in to clean up the leak. “Parents had to keep their children inside. … Back yards were destroyed and littered with debris.”

Snyder, perhaps the most successful civil attorney in Maryland, counts victories of more than $100 million each to his credit.

He squeezed United Cable Co. to pay out $106 million; he hit Ernst & Young for $185 million; and he won the state’s largest civil jury award of $276 million against First Union National Bank. He’s created a cartoon superhero called “Snyderman” on his Web site and he even tells potential clients not to bother him if their case is not worth $1 billion.

With a sometimes comical presentation often eliciting laughter from jurors, Snyder said Exxon’s mistakes have left residents distraught, wondering: “What happens next? Will I get sick?”

“What remains is fear,” the attorney continued. “What remains is uncertainty. The land and water are forever contaminated … and Exxon is to blame.”

The trial could last between three and five months. Exxon will be defended by Jim Sanders, who represented the company during criminal and civil proceedings during the massive Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. Sanders is expected to make his opening arguments today.

Meanwhile, Snyder painted the company as irresponsible and, at times, devious.

“No one for 37 days determined there was a gas leak,” he said at one point. “It’s a skeleton in Exxon’s closet. … It was a dark secret.”
 
The class-action lawsuit is one of two filed by neighbors whose properties and wells were contaminated by a fuel additive, both naming Exxon and station operator Storto Enterprises.

Last month, state officials settled Maryland’s own $12 million lawsuit against the company for $4 million — the largest civil penalty ever levied by the state Department of the Environment.

State environmental officials said about 10,700 gallons of liquid gasoline have been recovered, but fuel in a dissolved state remains in groundwater. They have accused Exxon and Storto of failing to report the leak sooner despite obvious inventory discrepancies.

Snyder said Exxon official Jim McDonald deceived residents by first stating the company was taking “full responsibility for the leak and clean-up” but then backing off that statement.

“Exxon concealed facts it had a duty to reveal,” he said. “… Exxon may be a large corporation, but in this courtroom, we’re all on the same level.”

Examiner Staff Writer Jaime Malarkey contributed to this report.
lbroadwater@baltimoreexaminer.com 
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