BOZEMAN — More than a dozen eastern Montana landowners filed a lawsuit Friday against ExxonMobil Corp. claiming the company ignored warnings before a pipeline break that spilled an estimated 1,500 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.
The lawsuit from property owners along the scenic waterway claims last year's spill could have been avoided if Exxon followed the lead of other companies and shut down its pipeline during severe flooding in July 2011.
The 14 plaintiffs claim they suffered harm to their property and livestock operations, damage to wildlife, and health problems from exposure to oil. They are asking for unspecified compensation for their losses and punitive damages against Exxon to serve as a deterrent against future spills.
"They should have known long before this happened that this river floods every spring and produces massive erosive forces," said plaintiff's attorney Jory Ruggiero, from the Western Justice Associated law firm in Bozeman.
ExxonMobil spokesman Patrick Henretty said the company had not received the lawsuit.
The case was filed in state District Court in Gallatin County and assigned to Judge Holly Brown. The suit names as co-defendants ExxonMobil Pipeline Co., pipeline superintendent Jason Montgomery and pipeline builder Barnard Construction Co. of Bozeman.
A representative of Barnard said the company has no comment.
A second lawsuit against Exxon from another group of property owners is pending in state District Court in Yellowstone County. Barnard Construction was not named as a defendant in that suit, which is set to go to trial in October 2013 before Judge Gregory Todd.
Exxon has been ordered to turn over documents related to the accident to attorneys in the Yellowstone County lawsuit by Oct. 22.
The spill came after officials in the town of Laurel — where the break occurred — repeatedly warned that the pipeline was at risk. It was one of several major accidents in recent years that underscored lax government oversight of the nation's sprawling pipeline system.
An estimated 70 miles of the Yellowstone's riverbank were contaminated. ExxonMobil spent an estimated $135 million on cleanup work and upgrades to the pipeline where it crosses the Yellowstone and other major waterways along its route from Wyoming to a company refinery in Billings.
The Exxon spill caused more property damage than all other accidents in Montana over the last decade combined.
The line was buried only a few feet beneath the riverbed when it was installed in 1991.
Investigators suspect that scouring caused by flooding on the Yellowstone River was responsible for the spill, but a final cause has not been determined. During repair work after the spill, the pipeline was re-installed dozens of feet beneath the riverbed.