Billions and Billions Swerved
It’s been 13 years since the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and eight years since a jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages against the company — and three days since a federal judge began hearing arguments that the award was inappropriate. After the 1994 case, Exxon appealed the award to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, saying it had already learned its lesson by paying billions of dollars in cleanup costs, compensation to claimants, and government fines. The company claimed that it shouldn’t have to pay any punitive damages at all — but just in case, it also argued that $5 billion was clearly excessive. The court disagreed with the former point but conceded the latter, and sent the case back to U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland, who years ago decided the $5 billion judgment was permissible. Now he must come up with a new figure — not an easy task, because Exxon has made it plain that it will “appeal until the end of time,” according to Brian O’Neill, a lawyer for the communities, businesses, and about 30,000 fishers affected by the oil spill.