Exxon has asked for a new oil spill trial, saying it has ''come into possession of extraordinary newly discovered information'' suggesting a courthouse security guard tampered with the jury that returned the record $5 billion verdict against the company three years ago.
The security guard, according to Exxon, inappropriately influenced jurors by offering one of them a bullet to deal with a hold-out juror, by making inquiries about what was going on behind closed doors, by attending a picnic with jurors and by visiting a juror's home.
U.S. District Judge Russel Holland issued an order last week saying he will consider the oil company's request for a new trial. He gave attorneys until the end of the month to make their case.
Exxon's motion is the latest in a series seeking to overturn or reduce the verdict in its 1989 spill in Prince William Sound. Exxon vowed to fight the jury's decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It has an appeal pending with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Legal procedures required Exxon to file its motion for a new trial with the local federal court.
Brian O'Neill, an attorney representing the fishermen and others who sued Exxon, called this most recent claim ''foolish.''
''It's part of their scorched-earth defense,'' he said. ''They'll take any little thing and make a big deal out of it.''
The court first heard the security guard allegations in June 1995 after Exxon had filed a motion for mistrial and asked the court to subpoena jurors for questioning about whether there were any incidents of jury intimidation during the 41/2-month trial.
One juror, Doug Graham, told the court that security guard Don Warrick stopped him one morning and asked him if the jury was still having problems with one particular juror. Then Warrick ''pulled his gun out, took a bullet out and said maybe if you put her out of her misery or something,'' Graham told the court.
Warrick was subpoenaed and said under oath that he was outraged by the allegation.
''It was not me,'' Warrick told the court. ''I have never heard anything so absurd in my life.''
Holland denied Exxon's motion for a mistrial and said it couldn't be determined whether the gun incident happened.
That was the end of it until two years later.
Just two months ago, Exxon was contacted by an attorney representing a Fairbanks woman who works as a security guard who had an unrelated claim that involved Warrick. The attorney was looking for more information about Warrick's behavior during the Exxon trial. The attorney told Exxon that Warrick took a seven-hour lie-detector test and admitted to U.S. Marshal Service investigators that the gun incident did happen and that he lied in court. Warrick was forced to resign from his position in December 1995. He died four months later of a heart attack. His admission that he lied was news to Exxon.
Because of this new information, Exxon wants Holland to reconsider a new trial motion. The company also wants to see the polygraph test results and the U.S. Marshal's investigation report, characterized by one of Warrick's supervisors as a ''potentially explosive report that would have far reaching consequences if it got into the wrong hands.''
Exxon believes the guard's behavior was ''clearly coercive,'' Exxon spokesman Ed Burwell said. ''The juror involved (in the alleged gun incident) said it totally freaked him out.''
O'Neill said what happened between the security guard and the juror was ''bad humor, just bantering around. It had no impact on the jury's deliberations.''
The plaintiffs' attorneys don't object to Holland's considering Exxon's request, O'Neill said, because the information about the security guard is not new and has been addressed by the court. He also thought it would be better to deal with the matter now rather than have Exxon bring it up down the road.
''We filed a piece of paper so we can put it to bed quickly,'' O'Neill said.