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Long-awaited N.H. pollution trial ready to start

By LYNNE TUOHY, Associated Press Published: December 30, 2012

Lawyers for the defendants claim that they are not liable and that MTBE functioned as it should. They also stress that they have cleaned up their own sites and that contamination elsewhere was caused by third parties who have not been sued.

“They haven't suffered the injury they claim they did,” Attorney James Quinn, who represents ExxonMobil, said during a pretrial hearing in November. He said pre-existing contaminants — including iron, radon and E. coli — could unfairly drive up damages.

Attorney Jessica Grant, representing the state at the same pretrial hearing, said the case is about whether the oil companies designed a defective product, failed to warn consumers of the dangers of MTBE “and ignored their own experts who said don't use MTBE.”

Court officials in October sent out a 22-page juror questionnaire to 500 potential jurors. The questionnaire asked them whether they felt oil companies valued profits over safety and whether the companies don't fully disclose the dangers associated with their products.

After paring out those who get their drinking water from a well and those with hardships or deep biases, lawyers this month chose 12 jurors and four alternates who were told to report to U.S. District Court in Concord on Jan. 14. They have been told to expect a four-month trial.

“Everybody who sits on this case is going to be inconvenienced,” Judge Peter Fauver told prospective jurors during jury selection. “We will do everything we can to minimize the impact.”

More than 50,000 exhibits have been marked for identification, and there are upward of 100 lawyers on record in the case. The witness list numbers 230.

Court officials had to improvise a special docketing system because of the sheer number of participants and documents involved. It is one of only a handful of state court cases that has gone fully electronic, with all motions and orders being emailed.

Chief clerk Bill McGraw noted that the only other case that comes close to it in complexity is a school funding challenge of the 1990s, “and that pales in comparison to this.”

“It's been a unique experience,” McGraw said.

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