Jury clears Exxon Mobil of additional Valdez costs
Author: Yereth Rosen
The state Superior Court jury deliberated just a few hours before finding that Exxon had already sufficiently paid six local governments for impacts from the spill and threw out their claim for $30 million in damages.
"The jury was convinced that Exxon stepped up to the plate, did the right thing and paid its bills," said Chuck Diamond, one of the attorneys for Exxon Mobil, the successor company to Exxon.
The plaintiffs - the Kodiak Island Borough, the cities of Seward and Cordova and the Alaska Native villages of Old Harbor, Port Lions and Larsen Bay - had asked for $12.7 million from the oil company to compensate for response work and diverted public services. With interest, the total was expected to be about $30 million.
The trial lasted nearly a month. Opening arguments were held on June 20. But jurors deliberated just briefly, Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, before reaching their unanimous verdict.
"It seems to me fairly clear that they simply didn't believe our facts or our expert, and probably both," said plaintiff attorney David Oesting.
There had been some overtures toward settlement of the claims during the trial, but no "productive" settlement discussions, Oesting said.
The six communities' claims had been filed shortly after the spill but dismissed in 1994 by Superior Court Judge Brian Shortell. A state Supreme Court verdict in 1999 reinstated the claims.
The Supreme Court ruled that a new state law, made retroactive to the time of the Exxon Valdez spill, specifically allowed for such diverted-services claims.
The Supreme Court ordered the case to be returned to Superior Court, and Shortell came out of retirement to preside over the trial.
One local official said the verdict came as an unhappy surprise.
"We're obviously disappointed and will be discussing the matter with our attorneys to discuss where we go from here," said Gabrielle LeDoux, mayor of the Kodiak Island Borough, the largest of the local governments in the case.
"Obviously, we wouldn't have been in court if we didn't think we had a decent case. Everybody's always surprised when they get zeroed out," she said.
Still to be determined is whether the plaintiffs will pay Exxon Mobil's attorneys' fees and court costs, Oesting said.
Exxon said it spent over $2 billion cleaning up the spill. In 1991, it reached a $1.025 billion deal to settle civil and criminal charges filed by the state and the federal governments.
In a 1994 trial on claims pressed by thousands of individual plaintiffs, a U.S. District Court jury fined Exxon $5 billion in punitive damages for the spill.
That verdict was ruled excessive by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and is now under review. In June, Exxon Mobil filed a motion in federal court to reduce the damages to something less than $40 million.
A few compensatory claims remain outstanding, including those by fish processors and cannery workers.
The 11-million gallon oil spill was the worst from a tanker in U.S. waters and polluted more than 1,200 miles of shoreline.