CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Exxon Mobil Corp. was found liable Tuesday in a long-running lawsuit over groundwater contamination caused by the gasoline additive MTBE, and the jury ordered the oil giant to pay $236 million to New Hampshire to clean it up.
The jurors reached their verdicts in less than 90 minutes, after sitting through nearly three months of testimony. Lawyers on both sides were stunned by the speed with which they reached the verdict on liability and even more stunned when the jurors took barely 20 minutes more to fill out the damages verdict.
Juror Dawn Booker of Pembroke told The Associated Press that all 12 felt “very, very confident about our decision.”
“We’ve been sitting there for three months listening,” Booker said. “It was just cut and dry. We all pretty much had our own decision before we went in there.
“Honest to God, we put a lot of heartfelt thought into it,” Booker said. Although the state’s burden of proof was a preponderance of the evidence — or 51 percent as the judge explained — Booker said “it was way more than 51 percent for New Hampshire.”
The panel awarded the state all $236 million it was seeking from Exxon Mobil to monitor and remediate groundwater contaminated by MTBE. The chemical was added to gasoline to reduce smog but was found to travel farther and faster in groundwater than gasoline without the additive.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified MTBE as a “possible human carcinogen.” New Hampshire banned its use in 2007.The state says more than 600 wells in New Hampshire are known to be contaminated with MTBE and an expert witness estimated the number could exceed 5,000.
The trial was the longest state trial in New Hampshire history and the verdict the largest jury verdict in state history, eclipsing the $21.6 million awarded in 2010 in a drug products liability case.
Jurors had more than 400 exhibits to sift through, including memos and reports dating back decades. Those memos included some dating back to 1984 in which Exxon Mobil researchers warned against using MTBE gasoline because of the extensive harm it can do to groundwater.
Grant, the attorney representing the state, said it was pleased the jury held Exxon Mobil accountable for widespread groundwater contamination.
“The finding of Exxon’s negligence is particularly important because it shows the jury understood that this problem could have been avoided,” she said.
Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil was the sole remaining defendant of the 26 the state sued in 2003. Citgo was a co-defendant when the trial began in January, but it began settlement negotiations with the state and withdrew from the trial. Citgo ultimately settled for $16 million, bringing the total the state has collected in MTBE settlement money to $136 million.Fadel Gheit, managing director of oil and gas research and a senior analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., said the verdict won’t put a dent in Exxon Mobil’s bottom line.
“Exxon will probably make close to a $40 billion profit this year, Gheit said. “That’s (the award) two days’ work.”