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Federal judge speaks out on Exxon Valdez saga

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 12, 2015

U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland, who presided over the monumental Exxon Valdez oil spill court cases, removed his black robes to joke and offer personal thoughts on the stories surrounding his decades of legal work on the disaster Thursday in an Anchorage federal courtroom.

Speaking to dozens of lawyers and judges in an informal gathering of the federal bar, Holland said the oil spill could have been avoided if Exxon had acknowledged the captain of the tanker fell off the wagon.

Capt. Joseph Hazelwood's handlers at Exxon knew he was drinking at ports up and down the West Coast, said Holland, who is 79 and semi-retired. "They should have removed him from command. The result was a huge mess in Prince William Sound," he said.

The Exxon Valdez saga reached an anticlimactic end last month. At an Oct. 15 status hearing, one in a long series held in Holland's courtroom in the years since the Exxon Valdez went aground on March 24, 1989, government attorneys said they were stopping their effort to claim an additional $92 million from Exxon available under a special "reopener" provision in the 1991 spill settlement. That ended the last of the ongoing litigation.

Under the settlement of the case, one of several stemming from the spill, Exxon paid $125 million in criminal fines and, over 10 years, $900 million in civil penalties for spill damages to publicly owned natural resources -- land, water and wildlife.

In his talk, Holland said many failures led to the disaster, but he pinned blame on Exxon's inaction over Hazelwood's drinking problem. In 1990, a jury found Hazelwood not guilty of felonies, including an allegation that he was drunk as the Exxon Valdez skipper, but convicted him of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor.

The oil giant's failure to oust the captain was one of the missteps that led to the grounding of the tanker, which spilled more than 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound. Hazelwood shouldn't have left the ship's bridge, leaving the third mate in charge, and the third mate should have acted sooner when he realized he failed to follow navigational instructions and set the tanker on course for Bligh Reef.

"It usually takes multiple mishaps to have a bad accidents," Holland said. "This is what happened."

Splitting the tone of his talk between serious and joking, Holland brought stage props to illustrate his stories. One was a lava lamp that his staff gave him. Holland said a Coast Guard officer became impatient when lawyers peppered him with questions about Hazelwood's drinking habits, and the possibility the captain kept alcohol in his cabin.

"Where was the bottle?" Holland said the lawyers asked. "In frustration, the officer eventually said, 'I don't know, it may have been a lava lamp.'" Holland kept the lamp, which he described as "truly ugly."

Holland also brought a pair of hip waders. The waders were given to the judge anonymously before the trial began with an attached note reading, "You're going to need these."

Likely a reference to the pile of court documents, or pile of something much more messy, the waders symbolize the gargantuan undertaking Holland and his staff took on. Fishermen started filing lawsuits against Exxon within six days of the spill, he said. He credited attorney Brian O'Neill with successfully filing a "joint prosecution agreement" that brought most of the civil cases against Exxon into one case.

The third of four trial phases took the most time, Holland said. That phase centered on punitive damages. For his third stage prop, the judge had a political cartoon depicting him holding a rejected plea agreement. Hanging on the wall in the background was a lion's head -- old Exxon commercials featured a lion. The cartoon was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he said.

Holland said he rejected an initial negotiated agreement in the case.

After about 15 days of deliberation, jurors found Exxon liable for $5 billion in punitive damages. A litany of appeals followed, Holland said. After the second U.S. Court of Appeals decision, Holland suggested the damages only be reduced to $4.5 billion. It was his third attempt to award the plaintiffs.

But it didn't stick; in a 5-3 decision, the appeals court ruled damages should not exceed the compensatory damages in a maritime case, Holland said.

"Reversal was a disappointment to a lot of us," the judge said, noting the ruling was personally bittersweet because the higher court wrote in a footnote of its decision that Holland handled the case well. Holland said his staff and the attorneys who litigated the case deserved the credit.

"They're the people that made it come together. I thank them all for their efforts," he said.

Holland said people often ask him if he'd do it all over.

"No way, Jose," he said. But then he continued, "Seriously, if I was 25 years younger, you bet I would. It was a great experience. Everyone around me did above and beyond the call of duty."