Exxon's top official took the stand in federal court Thursday but refused to answer yes or no when asked whether he thought reckless acts by the oil company caused the 1989 spill. "The jury, I believe, has concluded that," Lee Raymond said.
The plaintiffs' attorney tried rephrasing the question a couple of times, and Raymond became agitated as he continued to evade the question.
Suggesting that Exxon has not learned a lesson from the spill, attorney Brian O'Neill asked Raymond if he was aware that self-help counseling programs require acknowledging the "full scope of your mistakes."
The 68-year-old Raymond countered that he didn't want to be argumentative and he didn't want to dispute what the federal court jury found in the early stages of the nearly 4-month-old trial, but "I'm also not looking back."
Hinting that Raymond was avoiding the question for legal reasons, O'Neill asked, "Are you going to appeal?"
That brought Exxon's attorney, James Neal, to his feet with an objection.
U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland made O'Neill move on to other questions.
The jury decided in June that the oil giant acted recklessly by allowing a captain with an alcohol problem to skipper one of its tankers. Earlier this month, the jury awarded 10,000 commercial fishermen about $287 million in actual damages, less than a third of what they had sought. The same jury must now decide how much, if anything, Exxon should pay in punitive damages.
The plaintiffs contend that Exxon is a huge, faceless corporation that has never shown remorse for causing the nation's largest environmental disaster. They also say it will take a $15 billion judgment to get the attention of Exxon which reported $5.28 billion in net income last year.
The jury listened to four days of testimony in Phase 3 of the complicated trial before both sides rested. Raymond was Exxon's last defense witness. He spent nearly four hours on the stand Thursday answering questions about his salary and benefits, the company's earnings and dividends, and how much he knew about the causes of the 11 million-gallon oil spill. Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday.
While on the stand, Raymond told the jury that Exxon conducted an internal investigation into the causes of the spill, but produced no written report of its findings. Instead, Raymond said, it was his job to report to the board monthly on the investigation's findings.
Three years after the spill, O'Neill noted in court, he met with Raymond to take a deposition in preparation for this trial. During that interview, O'Neill asked Raymond questions about many of the people who reportedly knew that Joe Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez, had a drinking problem and questions about whether Hazelwood had self-reported his alcohol problem.
Raymond didn't know the people O'Neill asked him about. He also could not answer questions about the self-reporting.
"He reported to the board on the spill for three years and didn't know the names of the key players," O'Neill said later outside the courtroom.
Raymond, who began working for Exxon 30 years ago as a research engineer, testified that the company has roughly 91,000 employees in 80 countries. He was president of the company at the time of the grounding. In 1993, he was promoted to chairman and chief executive officer and now earns more than $1 million in salary and bonuses annually.
Raymond talked about many of the management and procedural changes that took place within the company following the spill. He said the reason only one employee Hazelwood lost his job in the aftermath of the spill was because "we felt we didn't want to undertake a witch-hunt."
He said two top company managers left because of the spill. They "felt they let Exxon down," he said. He did not name them.
He told the jury that Exxon is a 113-year-old company and that "there hasn't been any single event in the history of the country that has been this kind of expenditure."
"The corporation could never, never have this happen to it again," he said. "I can't think of a single event that shook the bedrock of the employees' view of themselves and the corporation."
Finally, when asked if he thought there should be any punitive damages assessed against Exxon, Raymond said: "No. I do not, but that is exactly what everyone in this courtroom would expect me to say."