Exxon isn't cutting any checks yet

DELAYS? Oil giant hasn't said if it will fight recently reduced punitive damages.

July 1, 2008 

Is this really the end of the Exxon Valdez lawsuit? Plaintiff lawyers say yes. Exxon Mobil, however, is not saying.

Brian O'Neill, an attorney for the 32,000 plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the oil giant over the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, spoke to about 100 clients gathered in Midtown Anchorage on Monday. He said fishermen, property owners, local governments, as well as the other plaintiffs, may begin to see punitive damage checks as early as September, with most receiving them by November.

That is, as long as Exxon does not delay the court process, O'Neill said.

And, that, it seems, has become the next big question after the U.S. Supreme Court last week slashed the $2.5 billion in punitive damages an appeals court awarded in the case to no more than $507 million.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, the case goes back to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate its award, then back down to the U.S. District Court in Alaska to authorize the $507 million with interest.

Whether $507 million is the final amount seems to be a sticky issue.

"It's all been resolved," O'Neill said.

Exxon disagrees.

Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers, reached Monday evening in Texas, said the Supreme Court said the damages were not to exceed $507 million.

"They vacated the earlier award and set an upper limit of $507 million," he said.

Jeffers would not comment on what Exxon plans to do next or whether it will argue for lower damages.

"We are really going to wait and see what transpires through the process," he said.

ATTORNEY ANGRY

While O'Neill is expecting to get checks out to plaintiffs this fall, he's not counting on it.

"In the past (Exxon has) shown incredible ingenuity in figuring out ways to screw us around. They've got to decide whether they are going to be straight up," he said.

O'Neill didn't mince words in front of the mostly now-retired, graying fishermen at the city Assembly chambers of the Loussac Library on Monday afternoon when explaining the status of the case. Speaking about the justices' rationale for the reduced damages, he told the audience: "They pulled it out of their judicial a--."

"We got screwed."

He derided the five justices who ruled against the plaintiffs, calling them corporate shills.

"I'm ashamed and embarrassed about what the court system did," he said.

If the final decision is $507 million, then calculated with the District Court's agreed-upon 5.9 percent interest rate, minus the tens of millions in lawyers fees, and other deductions including the $107 million that Exxon will get back because of a previous deal with Seattle fish processors, the final amount to be distributed would be $628 million, O'Neill said.


Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.

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