BOSTON, May 23 -- A jury's award of more than $1 billion to a retired Louisiana judge whose property was contaminated by Exxon Mobil Corp. is the largest award ever to an individual for property damage, a national newspaper for lawyers said Wednesday.
Lawyers Weekly USA also said the award was the sixth-largest jury verdict in history to an individual.
"Usually jury awards of this magnitude involve egregious physical injuries," said Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA. "It's astounding that a jury could award $1 billion in punitive damages to a single person where nobody was physically hurt."
The award is one-fifth as large as the punitive verdict in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case in Alaska, Harrison said.
"It's stunning that a jury could award $1 billion for contaminating 33 acres, when Exxon only had to pay five times that when the Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil and destroyed a large part of a state."
The award was issued Tuesday to retired Jefferson Parish District Judge Joseph Grefer in Orleans Parish Civil District Court in New Orleans. The judge had sued Exxon Mobil Corp. over radioactivity left behind by an oil-field operation on his family's land in Harvey, La.
The oil company said the judgment is excessive and will be appealed, according to the New Orleans Times Picayune.
The jury ordered Exxon to pay $56 million to clean up the 33-acre tract; $145,000 for lost property value; and $1 billion in exemplary, or punitive, damages.
"I think the jury sent a clear message to the oil industry generally and to Exxon in particular that these materials should not be allowed to remain in the open environment any longer," said Stuart Smith, co-lead attorney for the Grefers.
Exxon attorney Gregory Weiss said he thinks the company has a substantial basis for appeal. "I don't think that justice was done," Weiss said.
Exxon did not deny there was radiation on the land but gave a vastly different assessment of how much "naturally occurring radioactive material" was on the land the Grefers had leased for about three decades to Intracoastal Tubular Services.
The company cleaned used oil-field pipe for Exxon. The Grefers said the contamination was extensive and even underground.
During the trial their attorneys and attorneys for Intracoastal presented memoranda and other documents they say showed that Exxon officials were aware of the possible dangers of radioactivity in the muddy scale on some pipes, but didn't tell the public or their contractors.
The jury found Intracoastal 5 percent responsible for the damages but passed them on to Exxon. The defunct company's owner, John Hooper, said he is "relieved."
Grefer said he and his family are happy with the verdict but aren't celebrating yet.
"This is a battle, not a war," he said. "We won a battle."
Grefer said the land will be cleaned. "We started putting the fence around it," he said, adding that if money from the case is not forthcoming, they will pay for the cleanup "as best we can."
The Boston-based Lawyers Weekly USA (www.LawyersWeeklyUSA.com) said the largest verdicts in history to individual plaintiffs and families, according to Lawyers Weekly USA:
1. $22 billion in Hawaii in 1997 to a treasure hunter who claimed he was tortured by former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos.
2. $5 billion in Missouri in 1992 to the family of a victim of serial killer Robert Berdella.
3. $4.9 billion in California in 1999 to family members who were burned in a car fire after a Chevrolet Malibu was rear-ended by a drunk driver.
4. $1.5 billion in Texas in 1998 to a Russian inventor who claimed he was swindled by his former business partners.
5. $1.24 billion in Wisconsin in 1999 to the family of a woman burned in a go-cart fire.
The largest verdict ever was $145 billion in punitive damages last year in a class action against the tobacco industry brought by Florida smokers.