By ERIKA BOLSTAD and TOM KIZZIA
Anchorage Daily News
June 03, 2008
The court generally issues its decisions on Mondays. The Exxon case is due out before the Supreme Court term ends June 23. Justices give no hint of their decisions until they are released.
The Supreme Court appeal, a dispute over $2.5 billion in punitive damages, is the final legal case remaining from the March 1989 spill in which the ruptured tanker Exxon Valdez dumped at least 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The court is weighing the biggest punitive damages award ever upheld in federal court, and considering what punitive standards to apply in maritime cases.
"They always leave their toughest ones until last, that's what everybody always says," said Anchorage attorney David Oesting, part of the legal team representing the commercial fishermen, Alaska Natives and others who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the oil giant.
In Cordova, home to much of the Prince William Sound fishing fleet, fishermen are tired of the years of waiting. They're more worried about the unusually late arrival of Copper River salmon, said Jerry McCune, president of Cordova District Fishermen United.
"We've been talking about it for 19 years," said Andrew Wills, a former herring and salmon fisherman who now runs an inn and bookstore in Homer, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. "We've been let down so many times. We've had this carrot dangled, then this knife in the gut. Nobody wants to be disappointed again."
The 32,677 plaintiffs in the case have been waiting to see their money since 1994, when a jury in Anchorage returned a $5 billion punitive-damages award against Exxon for its role in the spill. The company has been appealing the verdict since then. Some 6,000 of the original plaintiffs have died waiting.
In 2006, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cut the award to $2.5 billion. Exxon appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on Feb. 27.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs have since February been finalizing the distribution plan for the billions that the company, now known as Exxon Mobil, might be forced to pay.
Plaintiffs in the case could see checks within half a year if the case turns in their favor, Oesting said.
Ross Mullins, a retired Cordova fisherman and plaintiff, said talk of new "spillionaires" has been hard on fishermen and tends to turn public sentiment the wrong way. He said the average payout to every plaintiff on a $2.5 billion judgment, including crew members and small businesses, would be only $75,000.
Fishermen contend the spill damaged later salmon runs and wiped out herring in the Sound. Exxon paid damages for 1989 economic losses, but denies that the oil affected later years.
A spokesman for Exxon said last week the company is awaiting the verdict, like everyone else. He would not speculate on how Exxon would handle a multibillion award if it loses.
"We made our case and we're awaiting the court's decision," said company spokesman Tony Cudmore. "We believe that punitive damages aren't warranted, given the work we did to clean up the spill, the fact we spent $3.5 billion on payments and cleanups and settlements and fines. We made our case and we'll await the decision."
Business groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been hoping that the Supreme Court would use the Exxon Valdez case as a way to rein in what they believe are large, punitive damages against corporations.
Former Alaska governors, the current governor, the congressional delegation, supertanker captains, environmentalists, state lawmakers, Alaska Natives and experts in maritime law all joined with the plaintiffs.
The high court has made a clear effort in recent years to knock back high punitive damage awards. In February, the court appeared somewhat sympathetic to Exxon's efforts to reduce the amount approved by the 9th Circuit. Two justices mused openly about establishing a ratio to actual damages that would mean a $1 billion award.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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