A jury awarded $9.7 million Saturday to Native corporations and Kodiak Island Borough for land damages caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The verdict in Anchorage Superior Court disappointed the plaintiffs, who had sought more than $120 million from Exxon.
"It doesn't come anywhere close to what's been damaged," said Charles Totemoff, president of the Chenega Corp., who testified that people in his village are still reluctant to eat fish and game taken from the spill area.
The three-month trial was dominated by testimony about the lingering presence of oil in Prince William Sound and whether it had affected the value of remote, sparsely populated land that produces little or no income.
Tim Petumenos, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he probably would appeal the decision. He objected to Judge Brian Shortell's instruction that jurors were to consider only the actual lost use of the land.
"This case isn't over yet," Petumenos said. "We have a lot to learn from the appellate courts about how wilderness lands should be valued."
Exxon attorney John Clough said the verdict "is a reflection of reality."
"Most of these lands were never hit by oil," he said. "Most important, those that were damaged have recovered."
Exxon has announced plans to appeal a punitive damage award of $5 billion levied against it Sept. 16 by a federal court jury in Anchorage. Jurors in that case were asked to assess an amount that would punish Exxon and deter other oil companies from unsafe conduct.
Both cases stem from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The tanker accident on a charted reef dumped nearly 11 million gallons of oil, polluting roughly 1,500 miles of Alaska coast.
The case in state court involved nearly 600,000 acres of land owned by six Native corporations and Kodiak Island Borough.
The corporations had asked for $87 million for land damages and $29 million to excavate archaeological sites that came to public attention during the cleanup.
The verdict awarded $6.74 million for land damages and $2.95 million for archaeological claims. Kodiak Island Borough sought nearly $7 million, and was awarded $725,000.
Jurors were instructed to decide what use of the land had been lost and to compensate the plaintiffs based on a "fair rental value."
Because Native land is seldom bought, sold or leased and produces very little cash, the two sides argued at length over what this value should be.
The corporations said the spill had reduced the value their property could have commanded as potential parkland, and claimed they should be compensated for the potential loss.
Exxon characterized the claim as a "fantasy" that would produce an undeserved windfall. The company argued the jury should consider only the actual income from land actually oiled about 10 percent of the Natives' total acreage.
Two of the corporations, Eyak and Tatitlek, had no land that was touched by oil. Cordova-based Eyak Corp. was awarded nothing; Tatitlek's award was $244,000.
The other Native corporations in the case were Chugach Alaska, Chenega, Port Graham and English Bay. The corporations represent Natives in communities from Prince William Sound to the Kenai Peninsula.
Expert witnesses testified for the plaintiffs that, five years after the tanker wreck, it was still possible to see oil on several beaches. The plaintiffs also said there was persistent damage to seals, ducks, herring and clams.
Exxon's experts said oil persists in only a few places and was causing no harm. They also said marine life in Prince William Sound should recover completely in a few more years.
Exxon stressed that archaeological claims were hypothetical since both sides agreed that none of the 44 sites involved actually had been vandalized since 1989, when cleanup workers were deployed.
The plaintiffs wanted an award to protect sites from the threat of damage by returning workers.