Appeals court rejects Exxon appeal of $5 billion verdict

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected an appeal by Exxon Corp. on the $5 billion Exxon Valdez verdict handed down by a jury nearly six years ago.

The Ninth U.S Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, ruled that the verdict should not be thrown out because of irregularities during jury deliberations.

The appeal was one of several filed by Exxon and co-defendant Joseph Hazelwood, who was in charge of the tanker Exxon Valdez when it drove onto a charted reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of Alaska crude oil.

The spill, the nation's worst ever, polluted more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, killed tens of thousands of birds and marine mammals and disrupted fishing for years.

''We're pleased to have one of the collateral skirmishes out of the way,'' said Anchorage lawyer David Oesting, part of the legal team representing fishermen, Alaska Natives and other plaintiffs.''I think it was a grasp at straws by Exxon.''

Exxon spokesman Bob Davis, based in Houston, would not comment on the ruling Thursday.

The appeal in question focused on the behavior of Don Warrick, a court bailiff who escorted the jury and served it food during the five months of trial and deliberations in 1994.

After the verdict, an Anchorage newspaper reported that the deliberations were highly emotional, and that juror Rita Wilson was especially stressed out by the process and not getting along well with the others.

Judge H. Russel Holland convened a hearing after the story was published.

Doug Graham, another of the jurors, told the judge during the hearing that the bailiff suggested to him one morning that the others might want to put Wilson ''out of her misery.''

While saying this, the bailiff pulled out his gun and took out one of its bullets, the juror said. The bailiff at first denied the allegation, but later admitted he made the comments as a joke. Warrick lost his job, and died from aheart attack a few months later.

Holland ruled that a new trial wasn't warranted because Wilson didn't know during the deliberations about a conversation between Warrick and Graham.

Exxon argued that the bailiff's comments were inappropriate and coercive. For that reason, the oil giant said, the $5 billion verdict should be set aside and a new trial commenced.

The appeals court said Exxon didn't deserve a new trial because the company didn't show that it was hurt by the comments.

''The bailiff certainly should not have made his tasteless joke to (the juror),'' the appeals judges said in their 18-page ruling. ''In order to obtain a new trial on account of it, Exxon would have to demonstrate actual prejudice. It did not.''

Among the appeals yet to be ruled on is what's considered the primary appeal. In that challenge, Exxon asserts that the punitive damages awarded by the jury are not permitted under maritime law and certain federal laws.

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