The 4 months of federal court testimony over the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the mammoth $5.3 billion award for actual and punitive damages still hasn't resolved all the claims pending against Exxon.
"This kills 80 percent of the dragon," said David Oesting, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
The $5 billion punitive-damage award handed down Friday by the federal court jury will be split by everyone who had an actual damage claim against Exxon about 10,000 fishermen and 4,000 other plaintiffs including Natives, businesses, landowners and others. Some of the plaintiffs have already had their cases heard, while others are awaiting their day in court.
In addition, the federal court jury awarded commercial fishermen $287 million last month for actual losses. While the jury deliberated that issue, attorneys representing Natives settled out of court for $20 million to cover the loss and damage to their wild food harvests. A half-dozen coastal communities also settled out of court for roughly $1 million to cover unpaid bills from the spill year, 1989. And a couple of fish processors have settled out of court for $123 million, Oesting said.
But there remains roughly $300 million in claims that will be heard in the coming months, along with the potential for unending appeals.
And plaintiffs and Exxon are awaiting a verdict from a state court jury that has listened to more than two months of testimony about property and archeological damage to coastal sites. That jury has been deliberating for three days now over whether to award a half-dozen coastal communities and Native corporations the $120 million they are seeking.
Some of those plaintiffs with outstanding claims are still waiting to see where their cases will be heard. Attorneys have been battling that issue for years and the 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals is now involved.
And there are many smaller claims that U.S. District Judge Russel Holland separated from the four-month trial and plans to hear in what is being called "Phase 4," or the clean-up phase, of the Exxon trial. Claimants include shrimp fishermen, halibut fishermen, tender operators, mining-claim holders, lodge owners, helicopter-leasing firms and others. No trial date has been set, but it will not involve the federal jury that reached the $5 billion verdict.
Members of the bottom-fish industry are suing for $24.7 million, Oesting said. Aquaculture corporations with hatcheries in Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Prince William Sound have $18.9 million in claims. And scores of private land owners are in court claiming a loss of $130 million.
Then there are claims such as those of cannery workers, fish processors and tender operations who had their lawsuits dismissed in federal court by Holland. But because of an appellate court ruling last spring, many of them may have a chance to refile their claims in state court.
After the federal jury returned its $5 billion verdict Friday and as the courtroom was about to clear, Holland said to the attorneys, "I'll talk to all of you when you are ready about Phase 4." The whole courtroom laughed.