Juries in both state and federal court today will start wrangling with the question of how much plaintiffs should be paid for actual damages suffered as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Thousands of commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives are seeking $1.5 billion in the federal case, while six Natives corporations and seven municipalities have sued for $110 million in state court.
The federal trial, which is expected to run at least a month, will be heard by the same jury that last week determined the 11-million-gallon spill in March 1989 was caused by recklessness by Exxon Corp. and former Exxon Valdez Capt. Joseph Hazelwood. That verdict means the plaintiffs can pursue $15 billion in punitive damages.
Exxon lawyers have repeatedly said the oil company would compensate for all actual economic losses. They decline to estimate what they think is a fair amount, but they say the plaintiffs' figures are excessive.
Brian O'Neill, lead plaintiff lawyer in U.S. District Court, said Friday Exxon's words have a hollow ring.
"If they were happy to pay all compensatory claims, we wouldn't be here," he said.
O'Neill's legal team will first present the damages case for commercial fishermen from Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island, followed by the case for Native claims.
For fishermen, "the big thing is that people don't eat oiled fish," he said.
Some fishermen will take the stand during that segment, expected to last two weeks, as will scientists and economists, O'Neill said.
Issues include the spill's role in lower fish prices, diminished and genetically damaged fish runs and declining market value for fishing permits in recent years.
The Native case, which will require a week to present, focuses on placing a dollar value on subsistence fish and shellfish that couldn't be harvested because of the spill and its aftereffects
Exxon spokesman Doug Walt said scientific studies of the spill-affected areas will be at center stage during the trial.
"The case is a fairly complex process different fisheries and different years are involved," he said.
A number of studies since the spill, many sponsored by Exxon, conclude the sound is again healthy. That assertion directly conflicts with research by other scientists, who say the spill's toxic effects linger.
In the state trial, plaintiffs' lawyer Bob Stoll said each side expects to call as many as 100 witnesses during a trial lasting several weeks.
The municipalities and Native corporations are claiming the spill devalued their lands not only through direct oiling, but also that dwindling salmon runs in Prince William Sound have reduced the value of commercial property along the water.
Exxon has argued that issues of fish and wildlife populations and general ecology shouldn't be considered as land damage claims.
"Some of these things are really quite far afield from any land claims," said Exxon attorney Charles Diamond. "We don't have a fish case yet. We have a land case."