U.S. Water News Online
SAN FRANCISCO -- The $5 billion punitive damages award
against Exxon-Mobil Corp. in the 1989 Valdez oil spill is excessive,
a federal appeals court has ruled, ordering a judge to determine a
An Anchorage, Alaska jury had awarded the money to thousands of
commercial fisherman, Alaska natives, property owners, and others
harmed by the nation's worst oil spill.
Exxon, which later merged with Mobil, argued that it shouldn't
have to pay any punitive damages. The oil giant said it learned its
lesson and spent more than $3 billion to clean up the Prince William
Sound area and to settle federal and state lawsuits.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said some damages were
justified to punish the company, but that $5 billion -- the largest
punitive damage award in history at the time -- was excessive.
In its appeal, the company said the award was "completely
unwarranted, unfair, and is excessive by any legal or practical
The plaintiffs noted that the spill, which polluted Alaska's
Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of crude oil and smeared
black goo across roughly 1,500 miles of coastline, had reduced their
property values and damaged fishing and hunting grounds.
The same jury also found recklessness by Exxon and the captain of
the Valdez, Joseph Hazelwood, who caused the tanker to run aground on
a charted reef. That finding of malfeasance made Exxon liable for
The plaintiffs had alleged that Hazelwood ran the ship aground
while drunk and that Exxon knew he had a drinking problem and still
left him in charge of tankers. Hazelwood, however, was acquitted in
1990 of operating the tanker while drunk.
The jury also awarded commercial fishermen $287 million to
compensate them for economic losses suffered as a result of the
spill. Months after the court battle, U.S. District Judge Russel
Holland upheld the verdicts.
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