Small Oil

Harry Storm represents the corner gas station

Published in 2011 Maryland Super Lawyers — January 2011

People tend to think about gas stations only when the gauge is low, but Harry Storm thinks about them all the time.

A principal at Bethesda’s Lerch, Early & Brewer, Storm dedicates a large part of his practice to the retail petroleum industry. For the past 25 years, he’s been general counsel for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association (WMDA).

After receiving his J.D. from the University of Baltimore in 1979, Storm worked for a Baltimore firm, then as assistant state’s attorney in Montgomery County, then with Levitan, Ezrin, West & Kerxton, where he became the contact person for a trade association of service station dealers: WMDA. Shortly thereafter, in 1984, Levitan Ezrin folded. “I came into work one day,” says Storm, “and was told that the firm was dissolving ‘effective tomorrow.’” So Storm and his colleagues, Ken West and Stan Abrams, struck out on their own. WMDA followed.

Many of WMDA’s cases revolve around the Petroleum Marketing Practices Act, which governs the termination of franchise relationships between oil companies and their dealers, oil companies and their distributors, as well as distributors and their dealers. It was signed into law in 1978, and Storm tried his first case under the statute in 1985.

Storm represented an Amoco dealer who had been terminated when he couldn’t afford Amoco’s offer to sell him the property. Storm and his client asked for monetary damages in the franchise’s value. “We won that case,” he recalls, “and then had another one, won that one, and then had another one, and pretty soon people started thinking, ‘You know what you’re doing.’”

Before long he was networking with attorneys across the country, brainstorming strategies, talking over recent cases. “One was against Shell Oil Company,” he says. “We had a five-day jury trial before Judge [William M.] Nickerson, a federal judge in Baltimore. The jury was out about 18 minutes before they came back and awarded us to the penny the damages we were asking.”

Another case, tried before a Detroit federal court, and involving price discrimination claims against Sunoco, dragged on for weeks. “I have this distinct memory,” Storm says, “of driving over the Tappan Zee Bridge on my way to vacation in Maine, and my secretary calling to tell me that Sunoco had filed a motion for summary judgment. I’d received a letter with it saying that if we didn’t dismiss the case they were going to seek Rule 11 sanctions after they prevailed. Ultimately we got an $800,000 verdict that got trebled—$2.4 million. That’s a nice memory.”

Petroleum franchise issues became a larger part of the practice. “Clients I was representing in the mid-’80s,” Storm says, “as their businesses are growing, they’re acquiring more stations. Several of those clients have moved on and become distributors, and have hundreds of stations.”

These days Storm finds himself doing as much transactional work as litigation. “The pressure of litigation,” he says, “becomes more of a challenge the older you get.” But he’s rewarded by the privilege of representing his clients. “Many have been in the business for years, their parents may have been in the business, their grandparents. I’ve established a lot of friendships with clients.”

As for where he pumps his own gas? At many of the stations in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area. “My dealers give me great service,” he says.

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