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Appellate court reverses $45M verdict to Enbridge over 'rare' Romeoville oil spill caused by water line break

State Court

By D.M. Herra | Nov 23, 2019

Enbridge oil spill pipeline removal
Enbridge workers replace a section of oil pipeline. | USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency [Public domain]

Saying there was no way a Romeoville business could have known its ruptured water line also would cause an oil spill, a state appeals panel has tossed out a $45 million verdict awarded by a jury to petroleum pipeline company Enbridge Energy to cover its costs in cleaning up a 2010 spill.

A three-justice panel of the Illinois Third District Appellate Court in downstate Ottawa found that a Will County judge had allowed inadmissible evidence, and without that evidence, there is no clear proof the village of Romeoville or defendant Northfield Block Company should be held liable for the damaged pipe. Justice Daniel L. Schmidt delivered the court's decision in the case, with concurrence from justices Robert L. Carter and Mary W. McDade

Enbridge had sued to recoup the millions it spent cleaning up an oil spill when the underground pipeline in southwest suburban Romeoville broke in 2010. When the area was excavated, it was found corrosion at the top of the water line had created a weak spot. A jet of water finally broke through, leaving a hole and striking the oil line only inches directly above. The water pressure blasted a hole in the oil line as well, creating the leak.

Both sides called expert witnesses to testify, all of whom called the occurrence “unusual” or “rare.” In the perfect storm of circumstances that created the conditions for the leak, a cathodic tape surrounding the outside of the oil pipeline was found to be torn in the spot where the leak occurred. The pipeline is protected from corrosion by a low-level electrical current, and the tape acts as an insulator, preventing the current from escaping. The torn tape allowed the electrical current to leak. 

The current then bounced between the two pipes, causing corrosion to the uninsulated water line. Witnesses guessed the tape may have torn when the water line was installed beneath the oil line in 1977 by a predecessor to Northfield Block Company. The water line runs from the city’s water main to Northfield to provide an industrial water supply.

Northfield’s water line had experienced frequent leaks at other spots along the line, though never at the place where it eventually failed. Enbridge argued that the village and the business had failed to adequately maintain the line and should have known it was deficient. The defense argued that no routine maintenance checks could have discovered the corroding water line before it sprung its leak.

A jury awarded Enbridge more than $45 million on its breach of contract claim, though it found the company 45 percent liable on its negligence-related claims. The defendants filed a motion for a judgement notwithstanding the verdict, which was denied by the trial court and taken up by the appellate court.

The court found Enbridge did not meet its burden of proof. It submitted evidence of the water line’s past leaks to show it was hazardous and the defendant should have known about its condition, but there was no similarity between those leaks, which had an undetermined cause, and the leak that caused the oil line rupture, which was caused by the stray electrical current.

“The only real evidence that plaintiff submitted to support its claim was that defendant’s water service line leaked seven times in the 15 years preceding the oil spill, which was inadmissible,” Schmidt wrote. “Even assuming the admission of the prior leak evidence was proper, plaintiff failed to prove that defendant’s insufficient maintenance of its water service line caused the oil pipeline to fail. Plaintiff’s own evidence and experts indicate the culmination of this incident was the result of a series of events started when the water line was installed in 1977, not deficient maintenance.”

The court remanded the case with instructions that judgment notwithstanding the jury verdict should be awarded to Northfield. The decision was filed as an unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23, which limits its use as precedent.

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Illinois' Third District Appellate CourtEnbridge Energy PartnersWill County Circuit CourtVillage of Romeoville

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