The 10,000 Alaska fishermen who were awarded $287 million by a federal jury last summer for damages caused by Exxon's 1989 spill will get only about $76 million of that money, a federal judge ruled late last week.
The jury's verdict was reduced by $211 million to reflect what the fishermen have already been paid by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Liability Fund and from Exxon's claims program, according to a ruling by federal Judge Russel Holland.
''It's about what we expected,'' said Gerry Nolting, a Minneapolis attorney who represents the fishermen. ''I think it is very good.'' The fishermen will probably collect interest on the final judgment, he added, which will add up to $110 million.
''Most fishermen have been aware that these offsets would occur,'' Nolting said.
Theo Matthews of the Cook Inlet Driftnetters Association agreed: ''It makes sense. It had to be done at some point.''
In a prepared statement, Exxon officials said Holland's 60-page ruling is ''very lengthy, complex'' and that company attorneys were still reviewing it. ''However, it is apparent that the court agreed that a substantial amount of the compensatory damage verdict has already been paid,'' according to Tom Cirigliano, a company spokesman.
The fishermen have been waiting for this ruling because it gets them one step closer to the big pot of money: the $5.3 billion punitive damage verdict. The decision was necessary before Holland could issue a ruling that would start the interest clock ticking on the $5.3 billion. It moves the case along to the appellate court, where Exxon has vowed to take it.
Nolting said attorneys now will battle over whether the interest should accumulate from the day of the spill, the day of the verdict, or the day Holland issues the order. It would accumulate at roughly $684,000 a day, or $28,500 an hour.
''We're literally on the doorstep, there is just a handful of matters for Judge Holland to conclude,'' Nolting said. ''It could all be wrapped by early to mid-October.''
After listening to four months of testimony, a federal jury returned the $287 million actual damage verdict and a $5 billion punitive damage verdict against Exxon for recklessly spilling 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound. The punitive damage verdict is to be split between the fishermen and thousands of other plaintiffs, including cities in the spill area and Natives with subsistence damage claims, whose claims were either heard in state court, settled out of court, or are still pending.