The decision of how much if anything Exxon should pay in punitive damages for recklessly spilling 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound is now in jurors' hands. During four hours of closing arguments Monday, the jurors were told that the only way to stop a company with the wealth and resources of Exxon from ever doing it again is to slap it with a $5 billion to $20 billion judgment.
"The world is watching," attorney Brian O'Neill told the 11 jurors. "What kind of message is it going to send if you let them off the hook?"
Holding a tattered cover of Robert Fulghum's best-seller "All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," O'Neill told the jurors and the packed courtroom that Exxon has failed to learn the book's simple lessons.
"When you hurt someone, you say you're sorry," he said. "When you make a mess, you clean it up. We didn't have that here."
Exxon countered that it has learned its lessons and has been punished enough. "Exxon is not an evil empire," attorney James Neal told the jurors. "We apologized for this spill from the git-go."
The company spent $2.8 billion for cleanup costs and to settle with the state and federal governments for some of the damages, Neal said. The company changed dozens of policies and procedures, but ended up in court because it could not settle claims filed by roughly 14,000 plaintiffs, including commercial fishermen, Alaska Natives, a half-dozen coastal communities and Native corporations.
Exxon also contends the plaintiffs have overstated the damage the spill caused to pink salmon populations.
"If they (pink salmon) crashed," Neal said, "they crashed against each other because there is not enough room in the stream."
Exxon's wallet now rests in jurors' hands.
No one knows how long it will take them to sort through the week of testimony and reach a decision, but the verdict form asks only four questions:
Should punitive damages be awarded against Capt. Joe Hazelwood, the skipper of the Exxon Valdez? If so, how much? And should punitive damages be awarded against Exxon? If so, how much?
Fishermen, attorneys and journalists began lining up at 6:30 a.m. Monday to get one of the nearly 80 seats to hear closing arguments in this, the final phase of the Exxon trial. Dozens were turned away.
The verdict the jurors return will technically close the book on a complicated trial that started in early May; however, both sides say there could be appeals.
In the first phase of the trial, the jurors listened to four weeks of testimony and then found the oil giant acted recklessly for allowing a captain with a history of alcohol problems to pilot one of its massive tankers. In the days following the verdict, Exxon's stock dropped from about $62 a share to $57.
The same jurors then listened to three weeks of testimony, deliberated for five weeks and, two weeks ago, awarded 10,000 commercial fishermen $287 million for actual damages caused by the spill, the nation's worst environmental disaster. The fishermen had sought three times that amount. Wall Street apparently expected something worse. Exxon stock rose more than $2 the following day.
While the jurors deliberated, 3,500 Alaska Natives, who rely on the waters of Prince William Sound for harvesting wild foods, settled with Exxon for $20 million. Also, a half-dozen coastal towns and Native corporations are pursuing about $1 million in other damage claims in front of a different jury in state court. That trial is expected to last a couple more weeks.
Everyone who has a claim against Exxon is lumped into one class for this federal court, punitive damage phase. At the start of trial, O'Neill said he would ask for $15 billion from Exxon. On Monday, he was less specific, referring to $5 billion to $20 billion.
While the plaintiffs are asking for billions from Exxon, they are seeking only $1 from Hazelwood, who was also found reckless in Phase One of the trial. The plaintiffs contend that Hazelwood the only Exxon employee to lose his job following the accident has suffered enough.
On the other hand, the plaintiffs contend that Exxon and its executives have never felt a sting from their mistake.
In 1989, the year of the spill, the company was able to purchase, with $4.2 billion cash, a Canadian oil company. Exxon's earnings and profits have climbed every year since the spill. And all of Exxon's top management from the years of the spill and its aftermath were either promoted or received bonuses, O'Neill said.
Also, many of the policies and procedures the company changed were mandated by law, O'Neill said. "The American people need protection from Exxon Corporation," so Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act in 1990.
Exxon's Neal countered that Exxon did what the public wants responsible corporations to do. It assumed responsibility for the spill and launched an internal investigation and audit of its actions and procedures.
Neal told jurors that if they return a large punitive award, they will be sending corporations the message that they might as well sit back and do nothing after a disaster because they are going to get hit in court anyway.