Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Exxon Valdez Case Goes to the Supreme Court

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. The wrecked tanker emptied more than 11 million gallons of crude oil, a slick that coated 1200 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of birds and fish. In 1994, a jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to 33,000 Alaskan fishermen, small business owners, and landowners harmed by the spill.

Exxon has spent the last dozen years fighting against the jury award and using their vast financial resources to launch appeal after appeal in the court system. Last year, they persuaded a federal appeals court to reduce the award by half. Subsequently they appealed even that decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Exxon's case.

The court will be addressing one of the most basic issues of maritime law: whether a ship owner can be punished for the actions of its agents at sea.

Current case law, dating back to an 1818 case, says that ship owners can't be punished for the actions of their crew unless they "directed," "countenanced" or "participated" in them.

But such laws come from a different era, when captains ventured from their home port for years, argued David Oesting, the lead attorney for the more than 30,000 plaintiffs in the case.
It is not encouraging to read the following:
Justice Samuel Alito, who owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in Exxon stock, did not take part in the decision to accept the appeal.

The court's last ruling on punitive damages, in February, set aside a nearly $80 million judgment against Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA. The money was awarded to the widow of a smoker in Oregon.
I hope that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and ensure that the people affected by the spill receive the proper recompense for damaged health and injured livelihoods.