ATTORNEY GENERAL OF WASHINGTON
1125 Washington Street SE • PO Box 40100 • Olympia WA 98504-0100
For Immediate Release:
January 31, 2008
OLYMPIA – Attorney General Rob McKenna announced today that, as a result of outreach by Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler and himself, 32 other states have joined Washington and Maryland in signing an amicus brief in a significant case involving the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The brief, authored by General Gansler’s office, was filed this week in U.S. Supreme Court to support the commercial fishermen, seafood processors, Indian tribes, private landowners and businesses that depended on the pristine environment and fisheries of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
McKenna and Gansler sent a letter last week by e-mail to attorneys generals nationwide, urging them to sign onto the 21-page brief. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on Feb. 27.
“The Exxon spill didn’t just threaten the environment; it caused immense harm to the livelihoods of commercial fishermen from Alaska, Washington and elsewhere, as well as to Native Alaskans who fished in those waters,” McKenna said. “All of those individuals and associated businesses are still waiting to be made whole nearly 20 years after the Valdez spill. This case is critically important to those victims and to the states that signed onto the brief. All states must be able to protect their coastlines from toxic spills by punishing reckless behavior.”
The brief argues that since 48 states allow punitive damages, federal maritime law should hold corporations accountable for recklessness occurring on the water to the same extent that state law holds them accountable for land-based misconduct.
The brief states, “Federal courts in maritime cases tend to follow the general state common law of tort when there is no uniquely maritime aspect of the case. Nearly all of the 48 States that allow punitive damages follow one of two approaches to vicarious liability for punitive damages; Exxon’s proposed test differs markedly from both approaches, is substantially narrower than either, and is in substance a rule of corporate immunity that would threaten to undermine the States’ ability to deter and punish reckless misconduct through incremental common law-making.”
The brief also contends that the court should reject Exxon’s argument that the federal Clean Water Act precludes federal maritime law from providing for punitive damages.
The following states signed the brief: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.
In 1989, Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of unrefined Alaskan crude oil into Prince William Sound, creating one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history. The region was a habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals, sea birds and the great white shark.
In 1994, in the case of Baker vs. Exxon, an Anchorage jury awarded $287 million for actual damages (later increased to $504 million) and $5 billion for punitive damages.
Exxon appealed the ruling, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the original judge to reduce the punitive damages. In December 2002, the judge announced that he had reduced the damages to $4 billion.
Exxon appealed again, sending the case back to court to be considered in regard to a recent Supreme Court ruling. Punitive damages were increased to $4.5 billion, plus interest.
In December 2006, the Ninth Circuit reduced the punitive damages award to $2.5 billion in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that placed constitutional limitations on punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit denied Exxon’s petition for another hearing.
Exxon then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Oct. 29, 2007, agreed to decide whether Exxon Mobil Corp. should pay the $2.5 billion in punitive damages.
An estimated 32,000 claimants represented by up to 60 different law firms await the outcome of the case. The $2.5 billion award amounts to approximately $75,000 per claimant. More than a third of class members reside in states other than Alaska. About 20 percent of the plaintiffs in the original case are no longer living.
Letter from Attorneys General Gansler and McKenna
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Media Contact: Kristin Alexander, Media Relations Manager, (206) 464-6432, cell: (206) 437-2654