WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court refused Monday to free Exxon Mobil Corp. from having to pay $5 billion in damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the nation's worst ever.
The nation's highest court, acting without comment, let stand the award stemming from the tanker spill that polluted more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, killed tens of thousands of birds and marine mammals and disrupted fishing in the region.
The oil company still has a variety of other appeals pending, and the high court ruling does not obligate the company to pay anything right away, said company spokesman Tom Cirigliano.
In this appeal, lawyers for Exxon Mobil had urged the justices to throw out the punitive-damages award on grounds of irregularities during jury deliberations.
''We're not even close,'' to the end of the case, Cirigliano said. ''This doesn't have any effect whatsoever on us having to pay the $5 billion.''
In one of several challenges to the $5 billion award imposed by a federal jury in 1994, Exxon Mobil attacked the behavior of Don Warrick, a court bailiff who escorted the jury and served food to its members during five months of trial and deliberations in Anchorage.
Warrick admitted that in a conversation with one of the Exxon Valdez trial jurors he pulled out his gun and removed one of its bullets before saying another juror -- one holding out against making a punitive-damages award -- should be put ''out of her misery.''
Warrick, who said he was only joking, was fired. He died in 1996.
But U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland refused to order a new punitive-damages trial, ruling that the holdout juror had not known during the deliberations about Warrick's comment.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling last March, calling the bailiff's comment to a juror ''a strikingly tasteless joke'' that targeted a juror who had been conspicuously emotional. But the panel said the comment did not require ''a rebuttable presumption of prejudice'' because it was not aimed at the holdout juror.
In the appeal acted on Monday, Exxon Mobil's lawyers argued that such a presumption should exist.
The Exxon Valdez hit a charted reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil.
The case is Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Baker, 00-90.
On the Net: For the appeals court ruling: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 9th Circuit.
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