WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is considering whether to prevent victims of the Exxon Valdez disaster from collecting a $2.5 billion judgment, nearly 19 years after the tanker dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska waters.
In the case being argued Wednesday, Exxon Mobil Corp. wants the court to erase the award of punitive damages to nearly 33,000 commercial fishermen, Native Alaskans, landowners, businesses and local governments.
The 987-foot tanker, commanded by its captain, Joseph Hazelwood, missed a turn and ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Two brothers from Cordova, Alaska, were in line in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning, waiting to watch the arguments inside.
Commercial fisherman Steve Copeland, who was 41 at the time of the spill, said he cannot afford to retire because his business has never recovered from the steep decline it suffered due to the disaster.
His brother, Tom, said that Exxon "needs to get told they need to be a better corporate citizen."
A jury initially awarded $287 million to compensate for economic losses and $5 billion in punitive damages. A federal appeals court cut the punitive damages in half. The compensatory damages have been paid.
Now Exxon says it should not face any punitive damages because the company already has paid $3.4 billion in fines, penalties, cleanup costs, claims and other expenses.
It argues that long-standing maritime law and the 1970s-era Clean Water Act should bar any punitive damages, which are intended both to punish behavior and deter a repeat.
The company says it should not be held accountable for Hazelwood's reckless conduct. He left the bridge of the ship before the turn and had been drinking shortly before it left port, both in violation of Coast Guard rules and company policy.
The plaintiffs say the judgment, representing three weeks of Exxon's 2006 profit, is rational and proportionate. It takes account of Exxon's decision to allow Hazelwood to command the ship, despite knowing he had an ongoing drinking problem, the plaintiffs contend.
Justice Samuel Alito, who owns Exxon stock, is not taking part in the case. A 4-4 split would leave the damages award in place.