Exxon Corp. lawyers on Friday argued that thousands of plaintiffs suing the oil giant for civil damages over the Exxon Valdez oil spill should have their cases tossed out of court. Exxon and its subsidiary, Exxon Shipping Co., asked U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland to reject, before trial, claims made by commercial and sport fishermen, Alaska Native subsistence users and others.The federal trial is scheduled to start May 2 in Anchorage. A state trial is slated to begin June 6.
Arguments Friday focused on interpretation of federal law that limits who may seek damages in maritime cases. Observers say Holland may rule in the next couple of weeks.
The classes of plaintiffs Exxon sought to exclude from the case were fishermen who claimed the March 1989 spill in Prince William Sound resulted in lower fish prices, and lower boat and permit values; Alaska Natives who said they suffered from damage to subsistence resources; landowners who claimed a drop in property values, even though their land wasn't oiled; and businesses who claimed losses related to the spill.
Court records show that compensatory claims stemming from the spill run to hundreds of millions of dollars and punitive claims reach into the billions.
Exxon lawyer John Daum argued that while the price of salmon dropped after the 11-million-gallon spill and fishermen were hurt financially, society as a whole benefited from the lower prices.
Exxon also argued the fish permit claims should be discarded because the market value of permits regularly move up and down based on what people think their future value will be.
Brian O'Neill, representing the plaintiffs, used a cartoon of a fishmonger and a customer to make his point that the state's seafood industry suffered from the spill. The cartoon's caption read "Fresh Alaskan seafood regular or unleaded."
"People don't buy oiled fish," O'Neill said. "At the time of the (Exxon Valdez) oil spill, the impact on price was foreseeable. This is a direct normal result of an oil spill."
The plaintiffs also argued that while oil from the spill didn't reach Bristol Bay, the event caused a price drop for Bristol Bay red salmon, and that a jury should be allowed to decide if fishermen from that region were entitled to damages.
Likewise, plaintiff lawyers contended, a jury should be allowed to consider subsistence losses.
Holland earlier granted motions by Exxon to exclude commercial fishermen whose fisheries were neither closed nor contaminated by the spill, seafood wholesalers, fish processors, cannery workers and tenderers.