SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court on Wednesday declined to reconsider its earlier decision to cut by nearly half a $4.5 billion award punishing Exxon Mobil Corp. for the 1989 Valdez oil spill that fouled 1,500 miles of Alaskan coastline.
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In December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reduced the punitive damage award to $2.5 billion. The case began with a 1994 decision by an Anchorage jury siding with 34,000 fishermen and other Alaskans.
The plaintiffs said they were hurt when Exxon's oil tanker struck a charted reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil.
"It is time for this protracted litigation to end," Chief Judge Mary Schroeder and Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote in a 2-1 decision in December after the case reached the appeals court for the third time.
An Exxon spokesman said the company would appeal the decision.
"The 9th Circuit Court ruling now allows the case to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where we believe the case should be decided," Exxon spokesman Mark Boudreaux said.
Brian B. O'Neill, a lawyer for the fishermen, said the victims were considering their own appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the original jury award.
O'Neill said the case has dragged on so long that about 10,000 plaintiffs have died waiting to be paid. Their families will receive their portion of the payout once the case is ultimately resolved, "but that's not much satisfaction," he said.
In 1994, a federal jury found that Exxon and Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood acted recklessly, opening the company to punitive damages. The jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages, which a judge later reduced to $4.5 billion.
The disaster, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, prompted Congress in 1990 to pass a law banning single-hulled tankers like the Valdez from domestic waters by 2015.