Exxon Shipping v. Baker: What’s at Stake

By February 25, 2008Briefly Legal

Nineteen years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker on Wednesday, determining at what point punitive damages are excessive. (Here is the docket for 07-219, and the questions presented are here.) The National Association of Manufacturers filed an amicus brief in the case, noting that Exxon already incurred $3.4 billion in damages, settlements, remediation costs and fines as a result of the 1989 oil spill. The brief argues: “A punitive award is excessive if it exceeds the amount that is reasonably necessary to accomplish the governmental interests in deterrence and retribution. This court has both articulated and applied that principle in its recent punitive damages cases.”

The Sunday Washington Post had a detailed, page one story on the oil spill, its environmental consequences, and the legal case on page one. Headlined, “Exxon Oil Spill Case May Get Closure,” the story by Robert Barnes takes an almost psychological approach toward the issues.

In the time span of the battle — 14 years after the verdict, nearly two decades since the spill itself — claimants’ lawyers say there is a new statistic to add to the grim legacy of the disaster in Prince William Sound: Nearly 20 percent of the 33,000 fishermen, Native Alaskans, cannery workers and others who triumphed in court that day are dead.

“That’s the most upsetting thing, that more than 6,000 people have passed and this still isn’t finished,” said Mike Webber, a Native Alaskan artistic carver and former fisherman in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova. “Our sound is not healthy, and neither are the people. Everything is still on the surface, just as it was.”

Our legal system is ill-equipped to bring “closure” or to “heal” Alaska, which seems to be the desire — an understandable, human desire, to be sure — of many. Would $100 billion in punitive damages restore Alaska to what people remember it as being those halcyon decades ago?

The Washington Legal Foundation has a new legal backgrounder on case, “Exxon Shipping provides court welcome opportuniy on excessive punitive damages.”

Leave a Reply