Sorrell Suffers Supreme Court Loss in Controversial Pollution Case | Off Message

Sorrell Suffers Supreme Court Loss in Controversial Pollution Case


Attorney General Bill Sorrell - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Attorney General Bill Sorrell
In a unanimous opinion, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled last week that the state had missed its chance to sue a slew of oil refiners over generalized claims of groundwater contamination. 

The ruling was a significant setback for Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who two years ago accused ExxonMobil and 28 other companies of knowingly polluting state waters with the gasoline additive MTBE. A similar lawsuit filed a decade earlier in New Hampshire won that state a $236 million jury verdict from ExxonMobil and a $90 million settlement from two dozen other companies.

In the Vermont case, the oil companies argued that the state had known about the perils of MTBE since at least 2005, when the legislature banned the chemical, and therefore had exceeded a six-year statute of limitations. A trial court judge agreed and dismissed the blanket claim in January 2015. The state appealed, but in Friday’s decision the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal. 

Sorrell’s suit drew significant scrutiny last year due to the unusual manner in which it came to be filed. By the attorney general’s own admission, representatives of the Texas law firm Baron & Budd handed him an envelope filled with $10,000 worth of checks directed to his reelection campaign at a December 2013 fundraiser. They subsequently asked him to sue the oil refiners over MTBE contamination and offered their services to the state.

Within months, Sorrell’s office assented. It hired Baron & Budd and three other firms as outside counsel, guaranteeing them 25 percent of any verdict or settlement — potentially tens of millions of dollars. Another of the outside firms, the Law Office of L. Michael Messina, brokered the deal between Sorrell and Baron & Budd, according to the New York Times, and also contributed to the attorney general’s reelection campaign.

Following press coverage of the arrangement — and a complaint from a Vermont Republican Party official — Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed an independent attorney last May to investigate Sorrell’s actions. The attorney, Tom Little, and the panel that supervised him eventually referred that complaint to law enforcement authorities. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents met with the Vermont State Police in January to discuss the matter but would not say whether they would pursue it.

Sorrell, who is not running for reelection, has maintained his innocence.

While a setback for the state, the Supreme Court’s Friday decision does not put an end to the case. The trial court judge, Mary Miles Teachout, ruled last year that the state could still amend its complaint to focus on specific sites where it had discovered contamination within the past six years. 

Assistant Attorney General Scot Kline said this week that it intends to do so.

“We had hoped for a better outcome in this appeal, but the decision is fairly narrow and the case will go forward. We plan to file an amended complaint,” he said in a written statement. “The number of sites or wells still at issue, we allege, is in the hundreds in the state.”

ExxonMobil did not respond to a request for comment, but a company spokesman told the trade publication Law360 that the suit was “untimely” and “unnecessary.”

“MTBE has not been used in Vermont since 2005, almost a decade before the state filed this lawsuit,” the spokesman, Bill Holbrook, said. “ExxonMobil takes seriously its responsibility to conduct business in an environmentally sound manner, and we work hard to protect the health and safety of communities where we operate.”

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