A crush of fishermen and lawyers packed the federal courthouse Monday morning hoping for a seat to hear attorneys present opening statements in the long-awaited Exxon oil spill trial. Some had come from as far away as Tatitlik and Chenega Bay. Many flew in from the fishing town of Cordova. Some arrived at 6 a.m., two hours before the hearing was set to begin. When the doors finally opened, there was a rush for seats because U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland doesn't let spectators stand in his courtroom.
Thirty were left standing. Some argued they had a right to be there or deserved a seat and prevailed. But at 8:15 a.m., those on their feet were escorted out of the courtroom and the trial which has been five years in the making got under way. It is expected to last two to four months.
One by one, a dozen of Monday's spectators who had vied for seats were introduced to the jury as the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the oil giant. They included fishermen and landowners in Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Cook Inlet.
"How did we get here?" their attorney, Brian O'Neill, asked.
It all goes back to 1985 when Exxon officials first learned Capt. Joe Hazelwood had a drinking problem, O'Neill said. Exxon officials knew Hazelwood had been hospitalized for alcohol-abuse treatment and that he was attending Alcoholics Anonymous. For the next four years, the oil company chose to ignore his problem. And in 1987, they made him captain of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker.
"Is the job of a captain of a supertanker a good job for someone just coming out of treatment?" O'Neill said.
During the next two years, various employees of Exxon witnessed Hazelwood drinking aboard the ship or smelled alcohol on his breath. Some reported Hazelwood to Exxon managers, but nothing was done, O'Neill said.
Hazelwood attended AA meetings when he was at home, but when he was at sea, he drank, O'Neill said.
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground at Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil. Hazelwood had spent the previous 12 hours drinking in the Valdez port, O'Neill said.
"His alcohol problem was as clearly charted as Bligh Reef," said O'Neill, whose 10,000-plus clients are hoping for a $15 billion judgment against the oil company. "Exxon knew he was drinking and should have done something."
Hazelwood's attorney, Michael Chalos, said alcohol had nothing to do with the wreck. Hazelwood is expected to testify today.
"Alcohol played no role in the grounding of the Exxon Valdez," Chalos told the 12 jurors. In the hours before the accident, Hazelwood had three single vodkas, not the seven to 16 estimated by the plaintiffs' attorneys.
The plaintiffs' attorneys also said that nine hours after the accident, a blood test showed that Hazelwood had a blood-alcohol content of 0.06. The driver of a vehicle is considered intoxicated at 0.10, but that test is done immediately.
Chalos said the test results were suspect.
The person who took the samples carried the vials to his hotel and set them on a window sill for a day. They were later stored in a Coast Guard station refrigerator "right next to the tomato, lettuce, carrots and onions. Everybody had access to them," Chalos said.
Eventually, the vials were brought to Anchorage, but the seals on them had been broken by the time they reached the laboratory, Chalos said.
"There is serious doubt that the blood that was tested was Joe Hazelwood's," Chalos said. "Here we have outrageous and unexplained breaks in the chain of custody."
Chalos said Hazelwood never had an alcohol problem. When he was treated in 1985, it was for a mild form of depression. He was abusing alcohol at the time, Chalos said, but it was because of the depression.
"He was not ever diagnosed as alcohol dependent," he said. "And after he completed treatment, he started drinking socially."
Chalos said Hazelwood has accepted responsibility as captain of the Exxon Valdez, and "as captain of that vessel he is responsible for that running aground."
But, "once you have heard the evidence," Chalos said, "you will conclude this was an accident; a maritime accident pure and simple."
Exxon attorneys told the jury that the company accepts responsibility for the spill and that the plaintiffs are entitled to collect actual damages, but not the billions they seek in punitive damages.
Exxon attorney Patrick Lynch said that in order to collect punitive damages, the plaintiffs will have to prove that Exxon acted recklessly, not just negligently.
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