Exxon's campaign to get out of paying jury award offensive

Posted: Friday, October 13, 2000

The nation's highest court has sounded a belated, yet welcome, note with its refusal to reopen at least one aspect of the Exxon Valdez liability case.

Eleven years have passed since Exxon's wayward tanker recklessly dodged icebergs and plowed into a well-marked reef, spilling its guts into Prince William Sound. The resulting 11-million-gallon spill fouled the Sound's waters, damaging fish and wildlife and disrupting the lives of thousands of Alaskans employed in the region's fisheries.

The jury verdict, five years later, held the company responsible to the tune of $5.3 billion.

The award, huge at the time, sent a thundering message to corporate America concerning the responsibility that goes hand in hand with operating a highly profitable, yet potentially damaging industry in Alaska's prized environment.

In the years since, Exxon has mounted a legal war of attrition to reverse or trim the jury's award. The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear an appeal based on assertions that a court bailiff engaged in jury tampering won't change that course, Exxon spokesman Tom Cirigliano signaled last week.

''This is just one of several issues that needs to be resolved by the courts. It still leaves our case very strong,'' Cirigliano said, dismissing the outcome of the latest appeal, which was based on a bailiff's joking display of a bullet he suggested might be used to put an undecided juror ''out of her misery.''

Exxon officials don't seem too concerned that the litigation offends many Alaskans. The producer's attitude is familiar. Alaska has been dragged into many similar legal wars over taxes, tariff calculations and other issues affecting the oil industry's bottom line. The difference is this case is being waged over more than barrels and profits; the currency here is a pool of Alaskans who, through absolutely no fault of their own, landed in the spill's path.

Exxon's unpaid compensation remains a festering wound in fishing communities where boats are idled by the current slump in once-productive pink salmon and herring fisheries.

Payment of the claims won't reverse the clock. It won't mop up the crude dispersed in the tides more than a decade ago, but those eligible to share in the settlement shouldn't have to wait a generation for resolution of their claims.

Other larger jury awards, notably those levied against tobacco companies, have undercut Exxon's contention the $5 billion punitive damage component of the Exxon Valdez judgment exceeds judicial reason. Meanwhile, the cost of the protracted litigation, inside and outside the courts, stacks up ever more heavily against Exxon's interests in Alaska.

This spring, Alaska lawmakers, outraged by the company's failure to pay up, snuffed an Exxon legislative bid to obtain tax incentives for projects converting North Slope gas to liquids.

Corporate officials need to recognize the campaign to overturn the jury's lawful 1994 award is a glaring affront not just to designated beneficiaries of the Exxon Valdez damage claims, but to their neighbors and friends across Alaska.

Business-as-usual litigation is ill advised in this case. It's high time for Exxon to cut its losses and make amends.

But we're not holding our breath.

-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Oct. 8

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