Exxon's record profit shows high court's ruling was unjust

Chris Rilling

Every time I think the Exxon Valdez saga is finally behind me, something comes along to reopen that old wound. Like last week's story of another record quarterly profit -- $14.8 billion -- for Exxon Mobil.

I wonder how the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court felt when they read a story like that. Do they realize how ridiculous it was for them to award just $507 million in punitive damages against Exxon Mobil, thereby reducing the amount of damages to 1/10th of the original $5 billion awarded by the jury?

Let me put this in perspective: Destroying the livelihood of 32,000 fishermen, processors and others who depended on the natural resources of Prince William Sound and other parts of Alaska damaged by the spill was worth just $15,000 per person? The damages they awarded amount to less than 4 percent (3.3 percent, to be precise) of just one quarter's profit for Exxon Mobil.

Punitive damages are meant to punish. They are meant to serve as a deterrent, to keep a company from repeating past mistakes and from harming someone again in the future. Did the justices really think 3.3 percent of just one quarter's profit is punishment? Do they really think Exxon considers this slap on the wrist a deterrent? Exxon was probably cracking open champagne bottles when they heard the decision.

I was once a fisherman in Prince William Sound. I fished that serenely beautiful place for many years prior to the Exxon Valdez running aground on Bligh Reef.

My livelihood centered on the Sound's once lucrative herring fishery. At the time of the spill, the fishery was thriving and I could have sold my herring permit for $65,000. After the Exxon Valdez spill, the herring fishery collapsed.

This came as no great surprise to those of us who fished the Sound, because the spill happened right on top of the primary herring spawning grounds. The herring fishery was devastated and has never come back. I repeat, has never come back.

Once worth $65,000, my permit is now a worthless slip of paper and I have lost 15 years of income. My direct losses from the spill total hundreds of thousands of dollars, not the $15,000 you seem to think.

But beyond the direct economic injustice that has been done by the court's decision there is a deeper, more emotional scar that will never heal as a result of the judgment. Those of us affected by the spill not only desperately needed the money from Exxon to get back on our feet, we wanted to see Exxon punished for what it did to us, to the environment and to the national treasure that was once Prince William Sound.

The jury that awarded the $5 billion in punitive damages in Anchorage in 1994 knew best what Exxon had done and their judgment should have been left to stand. Instead, the justices meddled into an affair that they had no constitutional grounds or business meddling in, and their decision served only the interest of a greedy, unrepentant corporation.

Justice for all? What a farce.

Chris Rilling is a former Prince William Sound commercial fisherman who now lives in Columbia, Md., near Washington, D.C.