Jury orders Exxon to pay $7 million in polluted water case
By Ron Nissimov
A jury has ordered Exxon Corp. to pay $7 million to six people who claimed they were harmed by polluted water at their northwest Harris County subdivision in the 1980s.
Friday’s verdict in state District John Wooldridge’s court could play a major role in determining the outcome of 450 similar suits filed against Exxon over the contamination of drinking water at Three Lakes subdivision near Tomball.
“This is a wake-up call to all industries not to pollute,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lanier.
Exxon attorney Bill Stack said the company denies wrongdoing and is considering appealing or trying to settle the cases for what it considers a reasonable amount. Stack said the jury rebuffed Lanier’s recommendation at the end of the five-week trial to award hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
Exxon is accused of hiding information that its corporate predecessor, Humble Oil, had a massive 1939 underground leak of oil and natural gas from a well a half-mile away from where the Three Lakes water well would be drilled in 1979. The well was shut down in 1990 when benzene, a potential carcinogen, was discovered.
Exxon, which acquired Humble Oil in 1959, said the leak had been cleaned up by Humble in 1939. The company said the contamination was caused by digging a water well too deep and hitting a naturally occurring oil and gas deposit.
Residents also sued the developer of the subdivision and engineers of the water well, and settled those cases for $2 million, attorneys have said.
Lanier said jurors found Exxon grossly negligent and awarded $3 million, $500,000 for each plaintiff, in punitive damages. Jurors deliberated for two days before returning the 11-1 verdict. One juror who prematurely gave birth during early stages of the trial was dismissed.
Most of the actual damages were awarded to a 15-year-old boy whose leukemia is in remission. The boy, James Makofski Jr., who still lives in the subdivision, received $2.8 million, Lanier said. John Russell, 8, who lives in Bartlett, Tenn., and has anemia and immune deficiencies, was awarded $275,000.
Four adults diagnosed with various immune deficiencies that are not life-threatening got $50,000 to $100,000 each in actual damages, Lanier said.
Lanier said the six are representative of the remaining plaintiffs, including two with leukemia. Most of the plaintiffs claim such problems as nosebleeds, weakened immune systems and breathing difficulties.
Lanier said he offered to settle the entire case during the trial for $11.5 million, but Exxon countered with $7 million. He said Exxon offered $2 million before the trial.
Stack said he was not at the settlement discussions and could not verify the amounts. He said he does not know the amount that Exxon may consider to settle all the cases, but he said the jury awards for these plaintiffs were likely exaggerated because two sick children were part of the group.
Lanier said if Exxon decides to try all the remaining cases, it could lose hundreds of millions of dollars. He said he will ask Wooldridge to declare that Exxon committed gross negligence in all the cases, because a jury has already ruled on those issues. If that motion is granted, then the remaining plaintiffs would only have to show that their injuries were caused by the pollution to be awarded actual and punitive damages, he said.
Lanier said he will also ask Wooldridge to allow 25 more plaintiffs to proceed to trial in the next six months.
Stack said if there is an appeal, Wooldridge is not likely to allow more trials or make other significant rulings until the appeal is exhausted.
© 2001 by the Houston Chronicle Publishing Company. Reprinted by permission.
For more information please contact The Lanier Law Firm.