A federal judge has rejected Exxon Corp.'s attempt to throw out the $5 billion jury verdict and get a new trial in the case arising from the 1989 oil spill.
U.S. District Judge Russel Holland issued a 25-page ruling Tuesday denying Exxon's motion, which contended there had been jury misconduct and jury tampering during the five-month trial in 1994.
Specifically, Exxon claimed one juror was improperly approached about the case by a commercial fisherman who said, ''Hey honey, how we doing?''; that one juror was coerced by the other jurors; and that someone tried to intimidate two jurors by leaving dead fish in their driveways.
After spending six months considering Exxon's motion for a new trial and the plaintiff attorneys' motions opposing it, Holland wrote, ''Exxon seeks to make much out of very little'' and that ''Exxon's melodrama is an extraordinary and exaggerated account of the events.''
''I'm pleased,'' said David Oesting, an attorney representing the more than 10,000 commercial fishermen, Natives and others who filed the lawsuit against Exxon following the 11 million gallon spill in Prince William Sound.
''It is only one of more than 30 post-trial attempts at derailing, thwarting and leaving for naught the trial process,'' Oesting said. ''All have been unsuccessful to this point. This one was probably the most cynical attack on the jury and jury system.''
Exxon spokesman Ed Burwell said the company would not comment on the ruling.
Holland's ruling is not the final word in the complex lawsuit. When the jury returned the record verdict, Exxon vowed to ''use every legal means available to overturn'' it, including the appeals courts.
An appeal cannot be filed until all of the trial issues are resolved. The mistrial motion was one of the last big hurdles. Another, which is still pending, is a $3.5 million out-of-
court settlement of numerous small claims that were not heard during the trial. The settlement agreement has been submitted to the court, and attorneys are awaiting Holland's approval.
Exxon began its quest for a new trial after the Anchorage Daily News ran a lengthy article a year ago in which some of the jurors described how they deliberated and reached a $5 billion punitive damage verdict against Exxon.
The story revealed that one juror found dead fish in her yard during the course of the trial, that one juror claimed to have been coerced into a verdict, and that law officials had searched one juror's home for marijuana just weeks before he was seated on the jury.
Last spring, Exxon sought to question the jurors about their comments. Holland subpoenaed jurors, but blocked the public from those proceedings. Transcripts of the questioning were later included in the court file. Three months later, Exxon filed a motion for a new trial and the plaintiff's attorneys objected.