A federal judge has spurned class-action lawsuits against Exxon and other defendants in the March 24, 1989, Prince William Sound oil spill and encouraged individual plaintiffs to make claims against a $100 million liability fund controlled by the oil industry.
Judge H. Russel Holland has refused to recognize any classes of plaintiffs not fishermen, not environmentalists, not even Native villagers whose subsistence lifestyle was disrupted by the spreading tide of toxic crude.
Holland said certifying "many separate classes" would create confusion and would be inferior to other management plans, which he did not detail.
Individual plaintiffs are generally recognized as a class when they share common interests and their cases are similar in fact and law. But judges have considerable discretion.
Native villagers from Prince William Sound were one of the groups arguing for class certification.
"This is one accident that affected many people in a similar way. It affected all the Native people in a similar way," said attorney Lloyd Miller, who represents villages and is a liaison for all the plaintiffs in Exxon litigation.
"Obviously, I disagree with Judge Holland's conclusions," Miller said. "What this lawsuit is about is Exxon's conduct, and what Exxon is guilty of. The events that led up to the disaster are obviously common issues."
But not all the plaintiffs favored class actions.
Soldotna attorney Bob Cowan, who represents a commercial fisherman, said some fishermen are more successful than others, so their damages were greater from sitting out a season. Because different fishermen suffered different losses, "you have to deal with them separately anyway."
In state court, meanwhile, Superior Court Judge Brian Shortell allowed cannery workers to sue collectively, saying that a class action is superior to forcing individuals to each sue Exxon alone.
The cannery workers were the first class considered by Shortell, who has said he will accept or deny other class actions in the next few months. That could point the way to important differences in the way cases are organized between the two courts.
Meanwhile, Holland encouraged, but did not require Exxon Valdez oil spill victims to make claims against the Trans Alaska Pipeline Liability Fund. He backed away from a tentative decision announced in September that all plaintiffs might be required to exhaust the fund before suing Exxon.
Attorneys representing people seeking damages for the 11-million-gallon spill said they will advise their clients to submit claims to the pipeline fund soon, but continue the suits in federal court.
The $100 million fund must be spread among thousands of people seeking damages, and the claims from the Exxon oil spill are expected to greatly exceed that amount.