Exxon Balks on Punitive Damages For Valdez

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What is the cost of destroying an ecosystem and people’s livelihoods? Exxon thinks $2.5 billion is too much. In fact, their lawyers are arguing that zero seems more appropriate.

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Exxon is fighting the punitive damages levied by an Alaska court for its negligence in the Exxon Valdez spill 19 years ago, still North America’s largest oil spill. The same Exxon that made over $3 billion in profits per month in 2007 is challenging the $2.5 billion it owes individuals who filed suit against the oil giant. The 2.5 billion was already reduced from $5 billion by the Supreme Court several years ago, and Exxon sidestepped a possible $5 billion in criminal penalties by admitting guilt and settling for a paltry $25 million in the criminal case.

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The issue is a tricky one and illustrates the problems of regulating anything on the seas – even though the Valdez ran aground Prince William Sound, well within Alaska’s coastal waters. Exxon lawyers are contending that under maritime law, a ship’s owner cannot be held liable for accidents that are caused by a negligent captain, and they’re hiding behind the $3 billion they spent for the clean-up and compensating fishermen for 1 summer’s catch.

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Jeffrey Fisher, the lawyer for the fishermen and native Alaskans whose livelihoods were destroyed, cites Exxon’s actions as “callously indifferent.” At issue is the Valdez’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, who had been drinking and left the bridge during the complicated maneuvering around Bligh Reef. Although Exxon acknowledged during the original trial that Hazelwood shouldn’t have been captaining the Valdez because of his alcoholic history, they are now stating that they had no knowledge that Hazelwood was drinking – even though Exxon had sponsored treatment for Hazelwood’s alcoholism, knew he had dropped out of a post-treatment program, and that several Exxon employees had reported drinking with Hazelwood, some of whom knew that he was the Valdez’s captain.

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Maybe Exxon could just bite the bullet on this one, show some real concern for the welfare of the people and the ecosystem it nearly destroyed through its own negligence, and extend a show of good faith to the people of Alaska. Certainly they have the money. Or maybe the Supreme Court should drop the damages and instead require Exxon to pay an annual sum – indefinitely – because Prince William Sound will never be the same.

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(via NPR)

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