ANCHORAGE -- Exxon Corp. is liable to pay civil damages only to those who suffered direct economic losses because of the nation's worst oil spill, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland ruled late Friday that sport fishermen, fish processors, boat charterers and other groups and individuals could not pursue damage claims against Exxon or Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. because the spilled oil from the Exxon Valdez, a tanker that ran aground in 1989, did not physically harm them.

Commercial fishermen, however, would still be able to sue Exxon and Alyeska to recover lost profits. Alyeska, which operates the Alaska oil pipeline, is a consortium of subsidiaries of Exxon and six other oil companies.

The judge acknowledged the legal ambiguities he faced in forming his decision, and urged that the case be quickly taken up by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A 1927 maritime law cited prominently by Holland holds that a plaintiff may not recover future economic losses when negligence does not result in physical harm.

In a 13-page ruling, he said the excluded claimants may seek redress from the state and from a $100 million fund set up by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. The fund was established by the federal government to cover legal claims resulting from any spills involving the Alaska pipeline.

More than 160 civil lawsuits asking for unspecified damages are pending against Exxon and Alyeska by the state of Alaska, environmentalists and private individuals and businesses. It is widely believed that the fund is not nearly adequate to cover all claims.