Federal Judge Allows Maryland’s MTBE Lawsuit Against Gasoline Companies to Move Forward

Daily Record article (2019-10-08) reported that a federal District Court judge is allowing a Maryland lawsuit to proceed against various petroleum-related companies for environmental contamination from a gasoline additive.

The article stated that Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced the lawsuit against more than 50 petroleum related companies in December, 2017. The suit alleged significant water contamination from the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), which originated from leaking underground service station tanks. (MTBE is no longer used as an additive, having been replaced with ethanol.) Defendant companies include ExxonMobil, Shell, Sunoco BP, Chevron, and numerous others. If found liable, the defendants could face damages in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.

The article explained that U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander denied multiple motions to dismiss the lawsuit on September 4. From the article:

“Our water is a vital public resource and a source of drinking water for a large number of Maryland residents,” Frosh said in a statement when the suit was filed. “These companies knew that the use and sale of MTBE gasoline in Maryland would contaminate the state’s drinking water and render a lot of it virtually undrinkable.” …

The motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim joined by 62 of the defendants was largely denied. Hollander dismissed the state’s trespass claim for properties outside its exclusive possession but preserved the remaining claims.

Maryland’s complaint admits that MTBE cannot be linked to a particular defendant because it lacks any distinguishing traits among products. However, the complaint argues that the state’s “injury was caused by the commingled, fungible MTBE gasoline of several defendants,” according to the opinion. Hollander said Maryland courts have not addressed that theory of causation but concluded they would endorse its application in this case.

“To shield defendants from liability merely because the nature of their product makes it impossible to establish the manufacturer, refiner, or supplier would be contrary to Maryland law and public policy,” she concluded.

The article noted that Hollander also preserved Maryland’s public nuisance and environmental law claims and found that Maryland had stated a claim for a design defect.

The case is State of Maryland v. ExxonMobil Corporation et al., 1:18-cv-00459.

 

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