To put an exact price tag on the long-term economic and environmental effect of the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill would be a difficult -- if not impossible -- task.
However, a (recent) federal appeals court's ruling ... that the $5 billion in punitive damages against Exxon Mobil Corp. is excessive was a surprising and misguided twist in the long-running legal battles over the case.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that while some damages were justified to punish the company, $5 billion -- at the time, the largest punitive damage award in history -- was excessive. In its appeal, the company had contended that the damage award was unwarranted, unfair and excessive.
Unfortunately, the appeals court agreed.
Yes, $5 billion is a lot of money by anyone's measure. In fact, it is roughly equal to a year of Exxon's profits. It is a significant sum awarded in order to help remedy the situation created by the company.
That situation led to massive damage from 11 million gallons of crude oil spilling into Prince William Sound -- which reduced property values and damaged fishing and hunting grounds along Alaska's coastline.
As a result, many commercial fishermen, property owners, Alaska Natives and others were left with a reduced means of making a living or no living at all. The environmental damage was extensive and is still being evaluated.
The appellate court's ruling sends the matter back to the lower court to determine a lower punitive damage award. It is unfortunate that Exxon continues to fight and appeal this matter. Instead, the company should recognize its responsibility to Alaska, our environment and our people and pay what is owed to the thousands of Alaskans adversely affected by the spill.
This is a case that has dragged on too long. It would seem that Exxon would be as anxious as Alaskans to have the lingering financial issues related to the 1989 oil spill settled.
-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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