Exxon Corp. on Thursday delivered to a federal appeals court its arguments for throwing out the $5.3 billion verdict an Anchorage jury awarded to fishermen, Natives and others harmed by the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The appeal, to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, contends U.S. District Judge Russel Holland erred when he allowed the jury to award $5 billion in punitive damages for the March 1989 spill in Prince William Sound. An additional $287 million in actual damages also was awarded in the 1994 trial.
As it did in the lower court, the oil company is contending punitive damages weren't warranted in the case because Congress had spelled out what types of actions were needed to punish oil spillers and to deter oil spills.
But even if punitive damages are allowed as a matter of law, Exxon said in a statement released Thursday, a $900 million settlement with the state reached in 1991 precludes any more punitive damages.
The company also said the $3.5 billion it has spent to clean up the spill is punishment enough.
''The punitive damage verdict sends a perverse message that those who acknowledge their responsibilities and take prompt and costly remedial action will still face disproportionate punishment,'' Lee Raymond, chairman of the Irving, Texas-based company, said in the statement.
The company had told the appeals court in February that it planned to appeal.
One of the attorneys representing the more than 20,000 plaintiffs in the case said issues Exxon is raising now are not new.
''These are arguments that they have repeatedly argued and lost before Judge Holland,'' said Jerry Nolting of Minneapolis, who had not seen the appeal brief. ''They're bad issues.''
Nolting and other attorneys for spill victims have said the $5 billion punitive award isn't excessive for a company as wealthy as Exxon.
''Their stock price since the day of the spill has tripled,'' Nolting said. ''We've always said the punitive award isn't even a hiccup to Exxon.''
David Heilbron, a lawyer in San Francisco who helped prepare Exxon's appeal, disagreed.
''That is an odd notion of what a hiccup is and it also is a disconnect'' that shows no recognition of Exxon's exemplary conduct after the spill, he said. ''It just does not put its finger on what matters.''
Heilbron also said that if the court decides some punitive damages are reasonable, the amount the Anchorage jury awarded ''is off the charts.
''The Supreme Court has expressed its real distress with punitive damages run wild,'' he said. ''If this $5 billion award is not beyond the limits, then there are none.''
Exxon stock was down 50 cents to $62.871/2 per share in Thursday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Adjusted for splits, the stock traded at $22.25 on March 23, 1989, the day before the spill.