A New York federal judge issued a ruling last month in a lawsuit brought by Fresno, Calif., against several gasoline companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Shell Oil Co., for groundwater contamination from the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). The court ruled that some claims were time-barred and others were dismissed on substantive law issues. Fresno’s suit is one of dozens in an MDL accusing oil companies and refineries of allowing the gasoline additive to leak from underground storage tanks and pollute groundwater. The central California city originally sued 60 gas stations, but reduced that to 19 during the past few months.
Several defendants, including BP Products North America Inc., ConocoPhillips and Atlantic Richfield Co. settled with Fresno. The various remaining stations and the companies running and supplying them faced charges of strict liability, negligence and nuisance. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin dismissed all the remaining claims on 10 of those because she said the claims were time-barred. The strict liability and negligence claims on several more and the nuisance claims on others were dismissed by the court, leaving only three with all claims pending. The companies left are Citgo Petroleum Corp., Exxon and Shell.
Judge Scheindlin granted the motions for summary judgment, ruling that Fresno’s claims were barred by statutes of limitations. The judge said in her order:
The difficulty with Fresno’s position is that it has presented no evidence tying the contaminants detected at the soil detection … sites to any of its production wells. In sum, Fresno’s position that ‘it is not the mere presence of chemical molecules within the city boundaries that is significant for purposes of determining appreciable harm, it is whether the MTBE caused appreciable harm to Fresno’s water system’ that ultimately dooms its claims as to the … soil detection sites.
Some Defendants asked the judge to dismiss the strict liability and negligence claims against them on the grounds that Fresno couldn’t prove that their product caused its alleged injuries. She agreed, saying Fresno has no record or evidence tying the defendants’ product to the stations at issue, but rather relied on a theory that the products of several defendants were present in a blended state at one location. Judge Scheindlin said that theory, called the commingled product theory, was not applicable in this case as there was no evidence the products were delivered to stations in an “undifferentiated mass.”
The judge also granted the motion for summary judgment of several Defendants to dismiss the nuisance claims. Fresno opposed the motion on the grounds that the companies knew the risks of MTBE, yet failed to warn the operators of the stations. Judge Scheindlin also said Fresno’s nuisance claim against other defendants at other sites were unsupported by evidence of “affirmative acts” by that contributed “directly to the nuisance.” The case is In re: Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether Products Liability Litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Sources: Juan Carlos Rodriquez and Law360.com
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