The last of 14,000-plus plaintiffs in the massive lawsuit against Exxon Corp. for damage done by the Exxon Valdez oil spill have settled their claims for $3.5 million, putting Exxon one legal step closer to being able to appeal the $5 billion punitive verdict awarded in the lawsuit last year.
The lawsuit has been stalled for more than a year as several thousands of halibut, crab and shrimp fishermen, private landowners and a handful of others -- known collectively as ''the miscellaneous claims'' -- sought more than $50 million in damages.
They settled Tuesday for less ''in the interest of moving the case forward,'' said Steve Schroer, a Minneapolis attorney representing the plaintiffs.
Reaching a settlement, Schroer said, puts pressure on U.S. District Judge Russel Holland to rule on other issues pending in the lawsuit.
Still undecided is whether Exxon should get a new trial based on its claims of jury misconduct and jury tampering. Holland also has not ruled on when the interest clock should start ticking on the $5 billion damage award. At the going government rate, the $5 billion would earn roughly $684,000 in interest a day, or $300 million a year.
Once Holland rules on those issues and enters a final judgment, Exxon will be able to appeal the $5 billion verdict to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Exxon won't have to pay any money as a result of the settlement, company spokesman Ed Burwell said in a prepared statement. It will be covered by credits for previous payments made by the company.
The large, complicated lawsuit was filed by commercial fishermen, Natives, businesses, villages, landowners and municipalities immediately after the 11 million-gallon spill from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Some of their claims were settled out of court, but the bulk went to trial in the summer of 1994.
That summer, a federal court jury awarded 10,000 commercial salmon fishermen $287 million in damages. The same jury awarded all the plaintiffs $5 billion in punitive damages, but no money has been paid out as attorneys have battled other parts of the lawsuit, including the miscellaneous claims.
Within hours after the $5 billion verdict was returned on Sept. 16, 1994, an Exxon attorney vowed to ''take every legal step'' to appeal the verdict, including taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court. That being the case, the plaintiffs' attorneys are anxious to get those battles over with.
''Exxon has made it clear that it is going to appeal this to the end of the earth,'' Schroer said. ''It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say that Exxon could have dragged this out forever. That would have been a disservice to everyone. This (settlement) permits us to move on.''
Tuesday's settlement must be approved by Judge Holland. His approval is expected.