CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire's highest court upheld a record $236 million judgment Friday against Exxon Mobil for its use of a gasoline additive that contaminated groundwater in the state.
A jury reached the verdict in April 2013 after finding the company liable in a long-running lawsuit over contamination by the chemical MTBE. Lasting nearly four months, the trial was the longest and resulted in the largest jury award in New Hampshire history.
Lawyers for Exxon Mobil asked the court for a new trial. They said the company used MTBE to meet federal Clean Air Act mandates to reduce air pollution and shouldn't be held liable for sites contaminated by unnamed parties, such as owners of junk yards and independent gas stations.
The state Supreme Court rejected that argument Friday and about 10 other points raised by the Irving, Texas-based company. It also reversed a judge's decision to grant Exxon's request to create a trust fund for the bulk of the amount, about $195 million.
Exxon had said the trust fund would ensure the money would pay for cleanup and not diverted to such state expenses as legal fees for private attorneys hired to litigate the case. The high court said Friday the trust fund was "erroneous as a matter of law."
The state has yet to receive any of the money.
"It was a complete victory. We're obviously very pleased," Attorney General Joseph Foster said. "We were successful on all counts."
In a statement released Friday, the company said it disagreed with the decision and will consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"MTBE contamination has been found in New Hampshire because someone spilled gasoline in New Hampshire, not because it was added to gasoline in a refinery in another state," spokesman Todd Spitler said. "The state should have sued the parties responsible for spilling gasoline, not the refiners who were compelled by law to add oxygenates to gasoline."
It added, "MTBE contamination in New Hampshire is rapidly decreasing, and the state's current regulatory system, in which responsible parties pay for cleaning up gasoline spills, is effective in ensuring safe drinking water."
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is a petroleum-based gasoline additive that has been used since the 1970s to increase octane and reduce smog-causing emissions. Since 1990, it had been used widely in states with air quality problems to satisfy a federal requirement that gasoline contains 2 percent oxygen.
But MTBE was found in the late 1990s to contaminate drinking water supplies when gasoline is spilled or leaks into surface or groundwater.
New Hampshire sued Exxon Mobil and other oil companies in 2003, saying they knew they were supplying a product with unique hazards — specifically, that MTBE travels father than gasoline without it and that it is more difficult to clean up than other contaminants. Other companies settled with the state, which sought damages to perform comprehensive investigation and remediation of MTBE contamination sites.
Jurors found that Exxon Mobil was negligent in adding MTBE to its gasoline and that MTBE was a defective product.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, some of the oil companies said that when used as intended, MTBE is safe and effective, and the problem was with leaking gasoline storage tanks.
A number of states found MTBE in groundwater near leaking gasoline storage tanks, and water agencies reported MTBE found in drinking water supplies, although in most cases concentrations did not exceed EPA advisory levels.
The additive has been banned in a number of states, including in New Hampshire since 2007.