Fifteen years after the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska, a federal judge yesterday imposed punitive damages on Exxon Mobil Corp. of $4.5 billion. With interest, the total punitive award amounts to about $6.75 billion, according to lawyers for the 32,000 fishermen and residents who brought the suit in 1989.
Yesterday's decision was the third attempt by Judge H. Russel Holland, a U.S. district judge in Anchorage, Alaska, to impose a punitive award that the U.S. appeals court in San Francisco would uphold. On two earlier occasions, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated awards of $5 billion and $4 billion, not including interest, as too large.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the trial court's decision meant the litigation was almost over.
"This is the closing chapter at the trial court level," said David W. Oesting, a lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine in Anchorage.
Tom Cirigliano, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said the company expected the appeals court to reduce the award.
"The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has twice vacated Judge Holland's decisions in this matter," he said. The latest decision, he added, "will require us once again to appeal an order that is entirely inconsistent with the law."
A jury returned the $5 billion punitive award in 1994. Holland upheld it in 1995, saying that it was not "grossly excessive."