Jobber Wins $3M Suit Against ExMo


In a David-vs.-Goliath scenario, a jury last month found that ExxonMobil conspired to drive South Carolina petroleum jobber Bristow Oil out of the Mobil lubricants business and wrongfully terminated its distributorship in spring 2001. ExxonMobil maintained it canceled the contract in accordance with the terms of the distributor agreement.

A Darlington County, S.C., jury Nov. 21 found in favor of Bristow Oil on two counts – civil conspiracy by ExxonMobil, and wrongful termination of Bristows Mobil lubricants distributorship – awarding $2 million actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages. Bristow originally filed the lawsuit in 2004 in the South Carolina Circuit Courts Court of Common Pleas for Darlington County.

On Monday, attorneys for ExxonMobil filed for a judgement notwithstanding the verdict, which effectively asks the judge to overturn the jurys decision. It is considered a prerequisite for filing an appeal.

ExxonMobil fulfills all our contractual obligations, and treats all our distributors, suppliers, and customers fairly and equitably, ExxonMobil spokeswoman Prem Nair told Lube Report. ExxonMobil did not renew the contract with Bristow Oil. The distributor agreement that ExxonMobil had with Bristow Oil allowed either party to terminate or not renew the contract with or without cause subject to 60 days notification. We provided the required 60 days notice to Bristow Oil.

Marguerite Willis, an attorney with Nexsen Pruet in Columbia, S.C., headed the legal team representing Bristow Oil. The company has 15 employees. They were basically all in court for the closing argument, even their truck drivers were there, Willis told Lube Report. I think it was a long time, and a hard battle. I guess vindicated is a good word to describe it.

Willis said she would be surprised if ExxonMobil didnt appeal the verdict. Its not unusual to have post-trial motions, where they ask for something, or they ask for a new trial, she explained. Its the first necessary step to take an appeal.

Bristow is a family owned company that has been in business since 1912 in the Darlington-Florence area of South Carolina. The Mobil lubricants business was about 10 percent of their total revenue, she said.

According to court documents, the cases origins date all the way back to 1984, when Damon Flowers first joined Bristow at the request of his father-in-law, William Bristow. Shortly after that, then Mobil Oil Corp. asked Bristow to distribute its lubricants, and Flowers agreed to head up that part of the business.

It really was the part of the business he personally built and was personally responsible for, Willis said. So in addition to the business part of it, he had a personal investment in it because it was something he had taken up as a very young man and built the lubricants business up.

In the ensuing years, Flowers and other Bristow employees expanded the lubricant business. ExxonMobil regularly renewed the companys distributorship agreement while Bristow continued to make necessary investments to further build on its performance.

Bristows legal team claimed that in late 1998, White Oil Co. – another Mobil distributor in North Carolina, with operations in South Carolina, and ExxonMobil targeted Bristow as the Florence conflict. Thereafter, Flowers was approached by Glenn White, who owned White Oil. When White expressed an interesting in purchasing Bristow, court documents recounted, Flowers told him the company was not for sale.

Thereafter, according to Bristows lawsuit, White Oil and ExxonMobil proceeded with their plan to remove the Florence conflict, the court documents stated, adding that ExxonMobil provided funding to White Oil to purchase another lubricant business in South Carolina. But White Oil was facing financial difficulties in South Carolina, Bristow said, leaving ExxonMobil to analyze whether to bankroll an additional acquisition.

The plaintiffs attorneys argued that termination of the distributorship agreement with Bristow would primarily have been to Whites economic benefit, and by extension, to ExxonMobils. They said thats because White Oil would acquire Bristows customers so as to be more able to repay money owed to ExxonMobil.

In 1999, Mobil merged with Exxon to form Exxon Mobil. Following the merger, Bristow continued to receive and sign agreements to distribute Mobil lubricants.

On two occasions, ExxonMobil sent Bristow such agreements, both times representing to Bristow that new and exciting things were happening, and that it was working on a new form of distributor agreements, Bristow stated in court documents. Based on the representations in these letters, which any reasonable business person or other individual would have understood to mean that ExxonMobil was planning to continue its business relationship with Bristow, Bristow continued to promote and sell Mobil products.

According to the documents, ExxonMobil employees came to Darlington in spring 2001 to meet with Flowers, who believed they were coming to present him with a newly drafted agreement. Instead, they announced they were terminating Bristows distributorship.

Attorneys for Bristow contended that if the company had known ExxonMobil intended to end its 17 year relationship, it would have had options to either sell Bristows lubricant distributor business or to acquire a competing line of lubricants products to offer to its customers.

White Oil ultimately became part of PetroLiance. Willis said that while the amended complaint filed in January 2008 also named PetroLiance, White Oil Co., and certain White Oil employees as defendants, those cases were resolved before going to jury trial. We didnt go to trial against them, we only went to trial against ExxonMobil, she added.

Related Topics

Market Topics