Stunned. Outraged. Bewildered. Sickened. Saddened. Hurt. These are just some of responses in Alaska to the news that the US Supreme Court had slashed punitive damages against Exxon for the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill from $2.5 billion to $500 million.
Meanwhile the champagne corks will have been popping at Exxon’s HQ, after it was ordered to pay the equivalent of two days’ earnings.
The Supreme Court ruling is a bitter blow to 33,000 plaintiffs who have waited nearly twenty years for some kind of compensation and justice.
It means plaintiffs will receive $15,000 – instead of $75,000 – if they have lived through Exxon Mobil’s prolonged stalling and appeals. During the long fight for compensation, an estimated 20 per cent of fishermen, Native Alaskans, cannery workers and others who fought the company have died.
Exxon’s legal strategy has been to delay, appeal and fight. A federal jury in Alaska awarded $5 billion in punitive damages in 1994. A federal judge later reduced the punitive damages to $4.5 billion, and the appeals court further cut it to $2.5 billion. The fight reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999. Since then, Exxon has filed more than 60 petitions and appeals, sought 23 time extensions and filed more than 1,000 motions, briefs, requests and demands. The company has requested a reduction in the damages amount, a reversal of the verdict and a new trial, claiming jury misconduct and jury tampering.
Well now it has trampled all over the American legal system, relying on the Republican-dominated Supreme Court. As Exxon celebrates, many Alaskan’s livelihoods have still not recovered argues Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “Once again, the oil industry wins and people lose,” she said.
Here are some other responses from Alaska:
“Every Alaskan has to be angry, hurt and deflated after all these years of expecting a reasonable punishment, only to see it gutted by the Supreme Court,” said State Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat.
Jim Ayers, a past executive director of the council that oversees the $900 million fund paid by Exxon to settle government spill damages, said “You couldn’t stop yourself from crying when you saw what happened to Prince William Sound. “This morning, it just brought it all back.”
The marketing manager for Alaskan Prime Select Seafood Kate Boehm called the decision “A complete and utter travesty. The Supreme Court is owned by Big Oil. Justice in our country no longer exists.”
Mark Begich the Democratic mayor of Anchorage said he was also angered by the ruling. “The thousands of Alaskans whose lives were devastated by this disaster are hurt, once again, by this ruling. What we’re seeing today is another example of how Washington is out of touch with real people. The justices have sided with corporate America rather than with Alaska families who have suffered for nearly 20 years.”
A joint statement from Alaska’s congressional delegation said, “Today’s ruling adds insult to injury to the fishermen, communities and Alaska natives who have been waiting nearly 20 years for proper compensation following the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history.”
“Crime pays, and environmental crime pays really well,” added William Rodgers, a professor of law at the University of Washington and an expert on the Exxon Valdez case.
Riki Ott, author of “Sound Truth and Corporate Myths” was also outraged. “We were really counting on punitive damages paying for our long-term losses in the fishery. That’s obviously not going to happen,” Ott said. “Well, that’s an affront to everyone’s sense of justice.”
Yesterday was truly the day that justice died.