HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989


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The Associated Press

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 09/12/95
Day: Tuesday
Edition: Final
Section: Metro
Page: B1

ANCHORAGE- Lawyers for oil spill claimants who won a $5.3 billion verdict against Exxon Corp. said Monday they will oppose the oil giant's bid for a new trial.

In court papers available Monday, Exxon challenged the Anchorage jury that returned the near-record verdict after a five-month trial last year. The class action was filed by fishermen, Alaska Natives and other landholders after the Prince William Sound tanker wreck in 1989.

Nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil oozed into Alaska fishing waters after the Exxon Valdez tanker slammed into a charted reef. The accident in 1989 ranks as the nation's worst oil spill.

Exxon's request for a new trial was based on alleged juror misconduct and coercion, and it came four months after lawyers met with the panel behind closed doors to air published reports that at least one juror felt pressured into avoiding a hung jury.

The company also claimed jurors had access to information about former Exxon skipper Joseph Hazelwood's past history of drunken driving and loss of his driver's license -- information that over the plaintiffs' objections was declared off-limits at the trial. Hazelwood has joined Exxon in asking for a new trial.

Exxon lawyers also say one juror had failed to disclose a drug arrest and ''many years'' of marijuana use.

Exxon on Monday declined comment beyond the 25-page court filing.

But Brian O'Neill, who sued the company on behalf of the plaintiffs, said Monday the new trial bid was a ''waste of time.''

''Exxon is saying whatever it has to say, as it has since 1989, with a total and utter disregard for the truth to get out of its moral obligation,'' O'Neill said.

O'Neill, who sat in on the jury inquiry in June, said Exxon's request was unexpected. He disputed the company's claim that the burden now falls on plaintiffs to show why alleged coercion and misconduct could not be dismissed as ''harmless error.''

''Each one of those jurors was asked under oath that exact question -- did they consider information from outside the courtroom,'' O'Neill said. ''Each one said, 'No, we did not.'''

O'Neill's formal response to the request was due later this month.

In documents filed Sept. 7, Exxon alleged:

One juror had failed to disclose on a pretrial questionnaire that he had faced state criminal charges for possessing more than 1 pound of marijuana. Substance abuse and Exxon's reaction to it among employees was a key element in the trial after Hazelwood was accused -- and eventually acquitted -- of operating the tanker while drunk.

Exxon said the juror had acknowledged in the criminal case that he had smoked marijuana for ''many years'' and had a hard time giving it up.

Another juror, who sobbed outside the deliberations room after a month passed without a verdict, felt she had no ''escape'' but to eventually go along with the unanimous vote that led to the $5 billion verdict.

Exxon claimed efforts by U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland tended to isolate the distraught juror after the panel announced it was deadlocked.

''The message (was) unambiguous,'' Exxon said. ''In the court's view, it was more important for jurors to avoid an impasse than to treat each other properly or hold onto their honest convictions.''

Alleged coercion by a court security officer who, according to one juror, had removed a bullet from his handgun and, referring to the upset panelist, said, ''Maybe if you put her out of her misery or something.''

The juror who reported the exchange during interviews in June said he was ''really shook up'' by the gun display.

Alleged coercion by a fisherman friend of one juror, who reportedly asked, ''Hey, honey, how we doing?'' Exxon claimed the question was ''calculated to curry favor'' with the panelist.

Exxon claimed neither the fisherman's comments nor the security officer's action had been reported to the court during the trial. The jury was not sequestered.

Story Index:
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The Legal Battles story 68 of 87 Previous Next

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