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Judges' ruling adds insult to injuries in Exxon case



Published: Sat, November 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The three-judge panel of the 9th District Court of Appeals that threw out the multibillion dollar award that the Exxon Corp. should have paid those harmed by the catastrophic oil spill from one of its tankers deserves to be taken to the woodshed. They apparently bought the argument that paying to clean up the spill was enough of a punishment for the oil industry giant. They are wrong. That's like saying that if the perpetrator of an assault cleans up the blood on the floor, all should be forgiven.

We have argued before that wrongdoing deserves to be punished. Thousands were wronged by Exxon (now Exxon Mobil Corp) -- some whose livelihoods may never be restored. The company should be made to pay.

Twelve years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil through Alaska's Prince William Sound, in one of the worst environmental disasters of modern times.

Within a week of the shipwreck, oil had spread across 10,000 square miles, eventually reaching 600 miles from the point of impact, contaminating more than 1,500 miles of shoreline. Some 250,000 sea birds, 2,650 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 400 loons and more than 1,000 cormorants were killed. Of the 23 species hurt, only two -- bald eagles and river otters -- have fully recovered.

Sockeye salmon, pink salmon, mussels and the common murre -- a small seabird -- are still recovering. Harbor seals, killer whales and some sea otters show no signs of recovery, say federal trustees overseeing the sound's restoration.

Human toll: The human toll was even worse. As a result, in 1994, a federal jury in Anchorage Alaska found Exxon guilty of recklessness, ordering it to pay $5 billion to the 35,000 people whose livelihoods were affected.

In the meantime, hundreds have died waiting for their share of the settlement. The fishing communities have been destroyed by bankruptcies, divorce and other social problems. And now, workers involved in the clean-up are reporting chronic health problems.

However, the appeals court said that while some damages were justified to punish the company, $5 billion -- the biggest punitive damage award in history at the time and approximately a year's worth of Exxon's profits -- was too much.

In 1994, the jury had also awarded commercial fishermen $287 million to compensate them for economic losses suffered as a result of the spill. The appeals court left that part of the verdict intact, but ordered that a federal judge must reduce the punitive award.

So Exxon Mobil will continue to haul in its billions, and after waiting for years, those affected by the company's negligence will be entitled to a paltry $8,200 each.

Justice has not been served by the appeals court's ruling. But Exxon Mobil's shareholders must be ecstatic.




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