By Maggie Wall
June 28, 2008
"It's a crappy day all around," said Scot Gilliland who was a salmon seiner in March of 1989 when the Exxon Valdez went hard aground and sent 11 million gallons of oil spilling into Prince William Sound.
Gilliland has a wife and two young sons, "There isn't going to be a college fund set up for the kids," he said shortly after the ruling was made known around town.
"I haven't actually had a chance to read the decision yet. But my first comment is that it's amazing how money can purchase justice in this country. A jury of your peers apparently doesn't stand for much because they [the courts] can change it whenever they want."
He says Exxon's money and vast resources bought valuable time.
"They stretched it out long enough for the whole political climate to change so that they were able to have a court that was favorable to them to hear it."
They stretched the case out so long that of the original nearly 33,000 claimants, 3,000 died while waiting for a decision in the case.
Deedie Pearson was a Kodiak setnetter and her husband, Jim, owned a salmon seiner. Not only is she disappointed that big business won again, she's also concerned about the loss of cash that everyone was hoping to flow through the oil spilled communities.
"One of the great disappointments is that we won't be able to do anything for our community. I was looking forward to donating money to many of the non-profits," said Pearson.
Laine Welch, who normally writes this column, is vacationing in Cape Cod. Probably the biggest fish story since the oil spill, and she is out of town when the story breaks.
Welch was a fisheries reporter for KMXT, Kodiak's public radio station, that year. She covered the spill day after day, meeting after meeting. She says she's one of the few reporters in the state who covered the day-to-day spill activities and is still reporting on Alaska fisheries today.
She sent these comments from Cape Cod:
"What a sad reckoning...But I was not surprised at the decision. For so long our nation's political and cultural climate has favored the interests of Big Business, and of course, Big Oil reigns supreme.
"What a travesty, though, that the judges called the $2.5 billion award 'excessive.' The reduced amount of $507 million is what Exxon makes in profits in about three days! "I know it sounds cynical, but as with so many of the lousy decisions that have been made in our country, I can't help but recall the saying: 'We couldn't do it to you without you.'"
My favorite definition of "punitive damage" comes from motherjones.com:
"Punitive damages are the extra damages added to a jury verdict to punish especially egregious conduct by a civil defendant."
The site goes on to quote former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely, who once wrote that punitive damages aren't given out for innocent mistakes, but are generally reserved "for really stupid defendants, really mean defendants, and really stupid defendants" whose actions put others at great risk.
Mother Jones says that punitive damages "put the real teeth" into our legal system and serve as an ad-hoc form of regulation "by standing as a potential deterrent to all sorts of egregious behavior.
"That, of course, is why business really hates them," writes MoJo.
Fuel relief for fishermen? As I put the finishing touches on this column, Senator Lisa Murkowski called from D.C. to announce that she and Sen. Ted Stevens have sponsored a bill which would give the country's fishermen a tax credit for high fuel costs. That means you'd still have to pay the high cost now, but you'd get a break on future years' taxes.
Many Alaskan fishermen have been forced to stay at the dock because the cost of fuel did not justify trying to bring in the catch. Some Kodiak fishermen report as much as 60 percent of their gross fish income-the ex-vessel price paid at the dock-is going for fuel.
Recently, more than 1,700 fishermen signed a petition asking Congress for some sort of break to help offset the skyrocketing price of vessel fuel. Copies of the petitions were sent to Alaska's legislators in hopes that the state can do something as well.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]alaska.com