Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What do you do with a drunken sailor?

Well, if you're Exxon Corporation, you put him behind the wheel of an oil tanker. It's been almost 20 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the company has fought responsibility all the way to the Supreme Court. The Chicago Tribune reports:
It has been almost 20 years since the infamous Joseph Hazelwood and the Exxon Valdez loomed large in the nation's consciousness after the allegedly intoxicated captain beached the supertanker on the rocks of Prince William Sound in Alaska, dumping millions of gallons of oil into the sea.

But it's just this week that a case arising from the massive oil spill reaches the Supreme Court. You can blame the twisted path high-stakes civil litigation takes in this country or even an intransigent corporate defendant determined to protect its legal rights. But the residents who live around the sound say the case has dragged on far too long at the expense of too many of their own. And they blame Exxon Mobil for that.

But Exxon says it has paid enough—$3.5 billion in fines, civil damages and money to clean up the sound—to make further punishment unnecessary. And punishment is exactly the issue that comes before the court Wednesday.

Exxon is seeking to get out from under a $2.5 billion punitive damages award leveled in a class-action brought by thousands of fishermen and business owners who claimed their livelihood was irreparably damaged by the spill. The oil company maintains that the damages are unjust as a matter of maritime law. A jury originally smacked Exxon with a $5 billion award in 1994, and the company has been resisting paying it ever since.

It ultimately succeeded, on appeal, in getting it chopped in half. Exxon still disputes whether Hazelwood was drunk on the night of March 23, 1989, when he ordered the Valdez to turn to avoid floating ice, striking a huge reef and rupturing the ship's hull. Eleven million gallons of crude oil flowed into the sound, ultimately spreading across 600 miles of coastline. Thousands of marine mammals and fish were killed.
The Anchorage Daily News breaks it down by the disturbing numbers:
11 MILLION: Gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

470 MILES: How far the spilled oil drifted from Bligh Reef, to the village of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula.

1,300 MILES: The miles of oiled shoreline, 200 of them heavily or moderately oiled.

$2.1 BILLION: The amount Exxon estimates it spent cleaning up after the tanker spill over the following four summers.

$1.045 BILLION: Amount Exxon paid in 1990s in criminal fines and civil settlements.

$2.5 BILLION: The punitive damages the federal appeals court awarded in 2006.

$2.271 BILLION: The accrued interest on the $2.5 billion punitive damages award.

$781 MILLION: The lawyers cut of the $4.8 million, assuming that figure stands.

$3.1 BILLION: The plaintiffs estimated share of the $4.8 billion.

$465 MILLION: The Cook Inlet drift fleet's estimated share of the $4.8 billion.

$800,000: Estimated average payout to a Cook Inlet drift permit holder.*

$92: The estimated share for the Peninsular Aleutians roe herring fishermen.

30,000: Number of plaintiffs.

8,000: Estimated number of plaintiffs who have died since the 1989 spill.

$40.6 BILLION: Exxon's estimated profit last year.

$7.6 BILLION: Estimated cash dividends Exxon paid to its shareholders last year.

* The amount each plaintiff would get depends on their catch history in the years before the spill.


Cootamundra W. said...

Thanks for the reminder of this combination of tragedies.
Exxon is trying to back out of their responsibility to the earth and to each of us AGAIN.
If I had a penny for each dollar they have spent on litigation...

Sue J said...

I still refuse to buy gas there.

BTW, Justice Alito is taking himself out of this case because he's a stockholder in Exxon. Shocking!