Exxon Oil Spill Case May Get Closure

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

When a federal jury in Alaska in 1994 ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion to thousands of people who had their lives disrupted by the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, an appeal of the nation's largest punitive damages award was inevitable.

But almost no one could have predicted the incredible round of legal ping-pong that only this month lands at the Supreme Court.

In the time span of the battle -- 14 years after the verdict, nearly two decades since the spill itself -- claimants' lawyers say there is a new statistic to add to the grim legacy of the disaster in Prince William Sound: Nearly 20 percent of the 33,000 fishermen, Native Alaskans, cannery workers and others who triumphed in court that day are dead.

"That's the most upsetting thing, that more than 6,000 people have passed and this still isn't finished," said Mike Webber, a Native Alaskan artistic carver and former fisherman in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova. "Our sound is not healthy, and neither are the people. Everything is still on the surface, just as it was."

"The bottom line,'' said Tim Joyce, the mayor of Cordova, where half of the town's 2,400 full-time residents are parties to the suit, "is that there is still oil on the beaches. And this lawsuit still isn't finished."

The high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether punishment is excessive or even permitted under maritime law. The case, Exxon Shipping v. Baker, may turn, in the eyes of the justices, on a nearly 200-year-old precedent set when privateer ships sailed the oceans, or on the more recent provisions of the Clean Water Act.

But in Alaska, the lawsuit is seen as a test of justice and corporate responsibility, and its resolution is seen as critical to healing the scars left by an epic event that defines the state's modern history, Gov. Sarah Palin (R) said in an interview.

"Every Alaskan life was affected by this," said Palin, elected in 2006. "When I got in here, that was one of the first orders of business: to find out how in the world can this administration speak on behalf of all Alaskans who have been so adversely affected by this spill."

Exxon officials contend that such sentiments ignore the facts of the case and note that the company already has spent more than $3.4 billion in compensation for losses, cleanup and fines.

"This case is about whether further punishment is warranted," Exxon spokesman Tony Cudmore said. "We've spent $3.5 billion, which is a significant sum of money we think is adequate to deter anyone" from future wrongdoing.

But that figure no longer impresses Palin and others. When the jury awarded $5 billion in 1994, that represented a year of Exxon profits. An appeals court subsequently reduced the damages to $2.5 billion -- "about three weeks of Exxon's current net profits," the plaintiffs told the Supreme Court in their brief.

"I'm a capitalist, I'm a conservative Republican, I am pro-development and pro-industry," said Palin, who is herself a former commercial fisherman once party to the suit. "But consider what Exxon has made in terms of profits in all these years. The American judicial system came down with this judgment, and they've appealed and they've appealed and they've appealed."

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