A federal judge on Wednesday issued a ruling that could clear the way for a multimillion-dollar payout of punitive damages to thousands of commercial fishermen and others who claimed harm from the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
Judge H. Russel Holland of Anchorage rejected a bid from one plaintiff, Sea Hawk Seafoods Inc., to throw out a complex allocation plan for the damages and replace it with one that would steer potentially millions more dollars to the company.
In a 24-page ruling, Holland rejected Sea Hawk's request, finding that the fish-processing company had agreed years ago to the allocation plan.
Lawyers for Sea Hawk and for the class of nearly 33,000 Exxon Valdez plaintiffs could not be reached for comment on Holland's ruling.
Barring a Sea Hawk appeal, lawyers for the plaintiffs now hope to start paying out damages secured from Exxon Mobil Corp. to fishermen, cannery workers, land owners, Alaska Natives and other claimants.
The payments would signal the beginning of the end of an epic case.
After the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, an Anchorage jury in 1994 awarded plaintiffs $5 billion in punitive damages.
Exxon fought the award for years, arguing it already had paid out billions of dollars to clean up the spill and compensate fishermen and others.
In June the U.S. Supreme Court held Exxon liable for no more than $507.5 million in punitive damages. Lawyers for the company and plaintiffs subsequently worked out a partial settlement covering $383 million of the damages, and continue to battle in the lower courts over interest.
With Holland's consent, lawyers for the plaintiffs hope to hand out about $150 million by year's end to certain categories of claimants.