By BECKY W. EVANS (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PLYMOUTH, Mass.— In a precedent-setting environmental case, jurors agreed Friday that Bouchard must pay eight Mattapoisett property owners varying amounts in damages for oil that polluted their beaches for months or years following the April 27, 2003 Buzzards Bay oil spill.
After 10 hours of deliberations, the 13-member jury rendered eight verdicts, one for each of the eight plaintiffs in the case. The trial was part of a broader class-action lawsuit involving 1,100 Mattapoisett property owners.
The awarded damages, which range from $1,575 to $22,650 per property, will be doubled in accordance with state law, said Judge Raymond J. Brassard. In addition, the plaintiffs will receive 12 percent annual interest going back to the filing date of the lawsuit in September 2004.
After the trial, plaintiffs’ lawyer Martin E. Levin of Stern, Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin LLP said the case was “definitely” precedent setting.
“This is the first environmental class action to be certified and go forward in Massachusetts,” he said, noting that by “certified” he meant the court had approved of pursuing the claims on a class action basis.
Levin said he was “happy” with the verdicts, even though the damages were smaller than those calculated by the plaintiffs’ real estate appraiser who testified during the 10-day trial at Plymouth County Superior Court. The appraiser’s estimates ranged from about $5,000 to $60,000 per property.
Defense lawyer Ronald W. Zdrojeski of Robinson & Cole LLP said the verdicts were “much closer to our end of the spectrum.” During his closing statements, Zdrojeski had suggested that jurors consider awarding damages in the range of $200 to $3,000 per property.
Zdrojeski said he plans to visit his client and “consider our options.” The defense disagrees with some of the legal rulings in the case, he said.
Levin said he hopes Bouchard will take “full responsibility for the damages it caused and step forward to compensate the rest of the class.”
Lawyers from both sides must agree on how to proceed with the more than 1,000 plaintiffs who remain in the lawsuit.
“We now have some good benchmarks that I hope will be of help to all of you as you determine how best to resolve your cases,” Judge Brassard said.
Potential options include a “series of trials over a series of years” or “some form of negotiation among you,” Brassard said.
Jurors met in the courtroom at 9 a.m. Friday to begin their third day of deliberations. By 9:40 a.m., they had decided on eight verdicts involving 11 Mattapoisett properties, some with the same owners.
In addition to determining damages, the jury was asked to decide the length of time plaintiffs’ beaches were polluted with Bouchard oil. During the trial, the defense argued that most of the beaches were clean by Memorial Day of 2003, just a month after the spill. The plaintiffs’ real estate appraiser said the pollution lingered for 1.1 to 6 years, depending on the property.
For nine of the 11 properties, the jury found that beaches were polluted until the fall of 2003. Francis and Natalie Haggerty’s property at 126 Brandt Island Road near Leisure Shores beach was considered polluted until October 2007. W. Bradford Chase’s property at 15 Seamarsh Way was considered polluted until September 2009.
Haggerty and his wife, who attended all but one day of the trial, were awarded $11,880 in damages, considerably less than the plaintiffs’ request for $50,800.
“We’re glad the jury stood up for the residents of Mattapoisett against the Bouchard oil company,” Haggerty said.
Kim DeLeo, who is the class representative, was not among the eight plaintiffs involved in the trial.
“This gives us a starting point in moving forward with the rest of the class-action lawsuit,” she said. “I think the jury awarded us a fair amount.”
Levin said the eight plaintiffs in the trial were selected at random. They represented beaches with four different levels of oil pollution, ranging from “very lightly” oiled to “heavily” oiled, he said.
A second class-action lawsuit against Bouchard is pending in federal court. The lawsuit was filed by property owners outside of Mattapoisett who are seeking damages from the oil spill.
On April 27, 2003, the Bouchard No. 120 struck an underwater reef in Buzzards Bay after drifting outside a marked channel. The punctured barge, which was on its way to a Cape Cod power plant, leaked up to 98,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil. The oil polluted more than 90 miles of coastline, killed 450 federally-protected birds and temporarily shut down about 180,000 acres of shellfish beds.
Both Bouchard and the mate of the Tug Evening Tide, which was pulling the barge, pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and killing 450 birds. Bouchard paid the federal government $9 million in criminal fines, while mate Franklin Robert Hill served six months in federal prison. Bouchard spent $36 million in cleanup activities as required under federal oil pollution law.
Awarded Damages (prior to being doubled, without interest):
$3,180, 14 Harbor Rd., Harbor Beach (Armen and Pauline Barooshian)
$3,210, 15 North Rd., Harbor Beach (Armen and Pauline Barooshian)
$1,575, 18 Centre Dr., Harbor Beach (Armen and Pauline Barooshian)
All three properties polluted until Sept. ’03.
$2,820, 37 Silver Shell Ave., Crescent Beach (Ronald and Daniele Bick)
Polluted until Nov. ’03
$22,650, 15 Seamarsh Way (W. Bradford Chase)
Polluted until Sept. ’09.
$2,070, 6 Avenue A, Pease’s Point (Margaret Churchill)
Polluted until Sept. ’03.
$13,800, 16 Water St. (Anne Downey)
Polluted until Sept. ’03.
$1,845, 19 Noyes Ave., Shell Beach (Thomas and Georgia Glick)
$2,910, 21 Noyes Ave., Shell Beach (Thomas and Georgia Glick)
Both properties polluted until Sept ’03.
$11,880, 126 Brandt Island Rd., Leisure Shores (Francis and Natalie Haggerty)
Polluted until October ’07.
$1,823, 11 Highland Ave., Brandt Beach (John and Maureen Mullen)
Polluted until October ’03.