A federal jury decided Monday that recklessness by Exxon Corp. and Capt. Joe Hazelwood led to the 1989 tanker grounding that caused the nation's worst oil spill which means the oil giant could be liable for $15 billion in punitive damages. A dozen fishermen and attorneys' spouses leaped to their feet with applause and a cheer as Judge Russel Holland read the verdict. He reprimanded them with a quick, "Knock it off."
Brian O'Neill, the Minneapolis attorney representing more than 10,000 fishermen, Natives and others, wiped tears from his eyes.
The decision, which came after four weeks of testimony and four days of deliberations, centered on Hazelwood's drinking problem and what Exxon knew about it. But the verdict is only the first of several that the federal jury will have to make. The trial will move on to issues of damages how much Exxon should pay when testimony resumes again next week.
For the moment, though, the plaintiffs were elated. Standing in front of the federal court building with his 1-year-old son in his arms, O'Neill said: "With a company as large as Exxon Corp. that thinks it is above the law you need to take a substantial bite out of their butt before they will change their behavior.
"We want to change Exxon. We want to make the Exxons of the world aware that they are responsible the same way that you and I are responsible."
"It is really a great day," he added. "It took five years to bring it about, but we got there."
Within an hour, word of the verdict spread by radio among Cordova fishermen out on their boats in Prince William Sound.
"The feedback was: Right on," said Dorne Hawxhurst, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United.
"As a result of Exxon's recklessness, the Sound is too sick to fish," Hawxhurst said. "If these guys had a choice between today's verdict and a reward, they would still rather turn back the clock to 1989 and just fish."
When the verdict was read, Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground, and Exxon attorneys sat solemnly. Hazelwood left the courtroom without comment and declined a request for an interview.
Not knowing which way the jury would go, the Exxon public relations department had written several versions of news releases. The one handed out at the federal courthouse quoted Exxon's chairman, Lee Raymond.
"We are disappointed with the jury's finding that Exxon's conduct was reckless and that this recklessness was a legal cause of the accidental grounding of the Exxon Valdez," the statement said. "The resulting oil spill was a tragic accident which impacted the lives of many Alaskans. For that we are truly sorry."
Patrick Lynch, a Los Angeles attorney who represented Exxon in the courtroom, said the decision was not surprising.
"I always think of Mrs. O'Leary's cow," Lynch said, referring to the famed 19th century cow that kicked over a kerosene lantern. "She didn't go out to burn down the city of Chicago. But once you have something this serious happen, the emotional connection between the consequences and the conduct tends to get blurred.
"I feel that was a problem we were struggling with, particularly struggling with here in Alaska."
The plaintiffs contended that Hazelwood was drunk the night the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of North Slope crude. They also sought punitive damages on the grounds that Exxon knew Hazelwood had a drinking problem, yet continued to allow him to skipper its ships.
Exxon and Hazelwood's attorneys admitted that the captain had a few drinks before setting sail on March 24, 1989, but said he was not impaired. Exxon argued that the only mistake made was Hazelwood leaving the bridge of the ship during a critical maneuver. That was against company policy, Exxon said.
Hazelwood's attorneys argued that he left the bridge in the hands of an able third mate, who testified that he should have been able to handle the maneuver.
The 12 jurors' decision is their first during the three-phase trial, which is expected to last through the summer. During the next phase, the jury will listen to biologists and economists discuss the actual damages caused by the spill. It will decide how much to award of the $1.5 billion in actual damages sought by the plaintiffs.
During the final phase, the jury will go back to the issue of punitive damages and decide how much of the $15 billion Exxon should pay.