Plaintiffs react to Exxon decision

June 25, 2008 

Reactions from Alaska plaintiffs to the Supreme Court's Exxon decision Wednesday morning ranged from disappointment to cynical outrage - mixed for some, with a tinge of relief that a two-decade ordeal had come to an end.

"It kind of sends the message that big corporations that have the right money and political power can throw safety and responsibility to the wind," said Mark Witteveen, a former Kodiak fisherman turned fisheries biologist. "I mean, $500 million for Exxon? That's not even a blip on their radar."

"This is a total slap in the face," said Andy Wills of Homer, a former Prince William Sound salmon and herring fisherman. "It just shows how corrupt our country has become. This won't even pay off a credit card."

The punitive damage limit set by the Supreme Court, including interest, should pay out just under $1 billion when the paperwork is settled in the coming months. For commercial fishermen with the biggest shares, that could add up to $100,000 apiece or more.

But it's a far cry of the life-changing amounts dangled by the original $5 billion jury award in 1994. That award, 10 times the number approved Wednesday by the Supreme Court, became the stuff of daydreams, of big new boats and retirement homes in Mexico.

Over the years, those dreams faded as the legal case meant to bring closure to the 1989 oil spill became instead a major source of stress in coastal communities.

"Everybody has just got to shift gears again," said Frank Mullen, a Cook Inlet driftnet fisherman who also works as a financial planner. He got steady calls Wednesday from fishermen seeking advice.

"For a lot of people, I'm recommending they zero out their credit card balance and get rid of high-interest debt, then fund their IRAs to the max," Mullen said. "Many fishermen who hoped to retire soon because of the graying of the fleet are going to have to keep fishing and hope the price of fish is high."

Dave Kubiak of Kodiak, a former English teacher turned commercial fisherman, said he was disappointed but not surprised at the Supreme Court decision. The court is "part of owned-and-operated corporate America," he said.

"It's the 'Grapes of Wrath' all over again. Steinbeck was a visionary with that," said the former teacher. "Where do you punch your fist to pierce the corporate mask to really make anybody hear you? Nowhere. It doesn't exist. Just like in the 'Grapes of Wrath' when the farmer said, 'Well, I'll take my shotgun to town and find the banker that took my land.' It's not the banker. He's just a figurehead."

Gov. Sarah Palin said she is extremely disappointed with the decision saying the court "gutted the jury's decision on punitive damages" and undercut one of the principal deterrents for marine shipping accidents in Alaska.

"It is tragic that so many Alaska fishermen and their families have had their lives put on hold waiting for this decision," Palin said. "My heart goes out to those affected, especially the families of the thousands of Alaskans who passed away while waiting for justice."

Palin's Fish and Game commissioner, Denby Lloyd, said the harmful effects of the spill are still being felt in Prince William Sound.

Limiting punitive damages this way sets a bad precedent, said Mary Jacobs of Kodiak, one of relatively few females commercial fishing in 1989.

"This is just saying that the oil companies aren't accountable for doing really bad stuff," she said. "Punitive damages is what keeps some businesses in line from taking risks, and the cost of operations just got less."

Some plaintiffs related the Exxon spill to a current big issue for commercial fishing, the proposed Pebble mine in Bristol Bay.

"What makes me worried on the Pebble mine. It makes it pretty wide open that these guys can pollute," said Dan Winn of Homer, a former Cook Inlet drifter.

Lloyd Miller, a lawyer for Native subsistence villages who were part of the lawsuit, said he was shocked that the justices would not use the term "malicious" to describe Exxon's tolerance of an alcoholic culture in its shipping arm. The company showed disregard for small villages that suffered lasting devastation to their subsistence, he said.

"I think it's a tragedy," Miller said. "Justice has not been done."

In the small Kenai Peninsula village of Nanwalek, people stopped hunting and gathering on the beaches for years after the spill. A generation of young people grew up without subsistence, and it has been difficult to revive, said Nanwalek council chief Wally Kvasnikoff.

"All the game that lived along the shoreline was licking up all that crude," said Kvasnikoff. "Subsistence kind of died. And they gave their retired guy $400 million."

Indeed, Exxon Mobil's retirement package for company CEO Lee Raymond was on many lips Wednesday, as was Exxon's profit of $40 billion last year.

On reflection, though, some coastal residents said they were glad at least some money was headed their way.

"It was just dragging on and on and on. I didn't have the feeling it was going to turn out good," said Rolf Christiansen, a fisherman and general store owner from the Kodiak village of Old Harbor, where he said local sea birds have still not recovered fully.

State Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, was a plaintiff as a former Cook Inlet driftboat fisherman. He said the case speaks poorly for the American justice system: 20 years to resolve what one lawyer described to him as "just a drunk driving case."

"I was telling a friend last week, I'm hoping to get enough for a new four-wheeler out of this," Wagoner said. He'll do a little better than that, he said, if the average payout for Inlet driftboats under the new figure extends to $150,000 or so.

Some fishermen said the amount of money to be deducted by their lawyers for expenses -- apart from the 22.4 percent legal fees already built into the distribution plan -- could cause friction given the smaller total award.

State Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said the Supreme Court decision was the result of 20 years of "Bush and Reagan appointees and a conservative movement that doesn't believe in corporate responsibility."

Gara was a lawyer with the state Department of Law who worked on the state's lawsuit over the Exxon spill -- a case that was eventually settled for $1 billion. Most of that money went to a trustee council to buy habitat and fund scientific studies.

Alaska's Republican congressional delegation also expressed disappointment, saying the majority opinion added insult to injury for Alaskans. They said the court should have stuck with the $2.5 billion figure approved on appeal.

"The good news," said Mullen, the Homer fisherman and financial planner, "is they put us out of the misery of waiting."

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