Resolution of Exxon interest payment issue may be soon

FINAL JUDGMENT: It's normal to wrap up details in 32 days.

July 17, 2008 

JUNEAU -- The U.S. Supreme Court could decide by the end of the month whether Exxon Mobil Corp. owes $488 million in disputed interest to fishermen and other plaintiffs for the 1989 oil spill.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, as well as a spokeswoman for the high court, said the justices always issue what's known as a final judgment after rendering an opinion in a given case.

Generally, a final judgment comes 32 days after the opinion, and in the Exxon Valdez case that would be around Monday, July 28, said Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford University law professor who argued for the plaintiffs before the Supreme Court.

The court typically uses the time prior to issuing the final order to address "housekeeping matters" such as whether interest is owed on an award, said Fisher, who once served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

But Fisher cautioned the court isn't obliged to deal with the interest question on any set timetable.

The Supreme Court rendered its highly anticipated Exxon Valdez opinion on June 25, ruling Exxon owes "maximum" punitive damages of $507.5 million. Adding interest on that amount would bring the total to nearly $1 billion.

The opinion didn't speak to whether interest should be tacked onto the award, so lawyers for thousands of commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs filed papers asking for clarification.

Exxon's lawyers on Tuesday responded with a brief opposing interest, arguing "there is no good reason" for it.

Fisher said he and other plaintiffs' lawyers are working up a reply to Exxon's brief and aim to file it with the Supreme Court by perhaps Friday.

The justices are on their summer break until October, but they continue to deal with emergency applications and other matters, a court spokeswoman said.

"We think that Exxon doesn't have much of a leg to stand on," Fisher said, as the standard rule is for interest to be applied on partially upheld jury verdicts.

An Anchorage federal jury in 1994 originally awarded plaintiffs $5 billion in punitive damages.

Frank Mullen, a Homer commercial fisherman who has tracked the case closely, said he and other plaintiffs are exasperated but not surprised at Exxon's ongoing fight, and the court system's continued indulgence.

"In a Machiavellian sense, you almost have to tip your hat to 'em," Mullen said of the company.

Exxon has said it long ago compensated fishermen and others for their actual damages, and that no more than $25 million in punitive damages is warranted.

Find Wesley Loy's commercial fishing blog online at or call him in Juneau at 586-1531.

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