Exxon plaintiffs updated

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2008

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this week, local stakeholders received information in Kenai on Saturday regarding the status of the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation. Brian O'Neill, a Minneapolis, Minn., attorney with the firm Faegre and Benson, spoke candidly to the plaintiffs he represented.

"I'm sorry. A system I'm a representative of, and that I asked you to place your faith in, screwed you and I'm sorry. (The decision) shakes my faith in the judicial system," he said.

O'Neill recapped what many at this point already knew, that the Supreme Court held that the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by the jury and subsequently reduced to $2.5 billion by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals are excessive based on maritime common law. In particular, the court held that the punitive damages should be equal to the compensatory damages, which the court recognized as $507.5 million in this case.

In regard to this $507.5 million, O'Neill said it's a sum the Supreme Court "pulled out of their judicial ass."

The case is now vacated and remanded to the 9th Circuit to reduce the punitive damage award. With interest of $502,188,867, the total award is expected to be $1,009,688,867, he said.

O'Neill didn't just reiterate the Supreme Court's decision for the stakeholders, he made certain all in attendance knew exactly how the justices voted. It was a 5-3 decision.

"Justice Alito resigned himself from the case due to owning ExxonMobil stock. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer indicated that they would have upheld the 9th Circuit's decision on the size of the punitive damage award. They were on our side. It was Justices Souter, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas that did this, and they all were appointed by either Reagan or a Bush," he said.

This food for thought O'Neill was attempting to share with the plaintiffs was not lost on them, as following his breakdown of the vote, one angry man yelled out from the crowd "Remember that when you vote in the upcoming presidential election."

O'Neill then informed the plaintiffs on what they can expect to happen next, and barring an unforeseen challenge from ExxonMobil regarding the ruling -- such as attempting to appeal paying the interest or paying less than $507.5 million, since it was decided that they while the company couldn't pay more, that doesn't mean it couldn't pay less -- he said, "Our hope is that we can distribute 90 percent of the money by the end of the year. We're ready to do that."

O'Neill said plaintiffs can, and he encouraged them to, sign up to receive their checks via direct deposit. This can be done at www.exspill.com, and in regard to the status of the bill to alleviate taxes on this money, he said "(Sen.) Murkowski is currently trying to attach it to the tax extender's bill."

However, he encouraged all plaintiffs with tax liens to contact the Internal Revenue Service and/or a certified public accountant to get their finances in order prior to receiving their checks.

The 32,000 plaintiffs are in line to share in an award average of about $15,000 a person, as opposed to the $75,000 they each would have collected under the $2.5 billion judgment. By comparison, first-quarter profits at ExxonMobil were $10.9 billion and the company's 2007 profit was $40.6 billion.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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