Alaska editorial: Appeals court does right by 1989 oil spill plaintiffs

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009

A federal appeals court struck a blow for justice Monday when it awarded the maximum allowable punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case - and told Exxon Mobil to pay interest dating back to 1996.

That means thousands of Alaskans - Natives, fishermen, other plaintiffs and their attorneys - will share about $1 billion in payments from the oil company.

The decision comes almost 15 years after a jury in Anchorage awarded the plaintiffs $5 billion in damages. Over the years, in rulings that bounced back and forth between U.S. District Court here and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, that award was whittled down. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court set the maximum award at $507 million and left the argument over when the interest clock began ticking to the appeals court.

Fifteen years. If justice delayed is justice denied, then justice has gone begging a long time in this case. Exxon Mobil can still appeal the Ninth's decision back to the high court. Alaskans would rather see Exxon take the high road: Continue payouts begun last fall, pay the billion and finally close this case more than 20 years after oil fouled Prince William Sound in the worst spill in North American history.

Exxon Mobil hasn't said what it will do. History says the company will go the distance, and plaintiffs will be left with incremental justice -- partial payments from the amount Exxon Mobil is no longer disputing - until the last appeal is done. After all, Exxon Mobil wanted the plaintiffs to cover its $70 million in legal costs, claiming it won the case.

The Ninth Circuit didn't buy that argument, concluding that the results were mixed, and leaving each side to cover its own costs.

Mixed is what it looks like from the ground in Alaska, too. Justice took too long, and Exxon Mobil, with pockets deeper than the Sound and hence the power to buy time, gradually won a 90 percent cut in its liability.

The interest decision makes it more like 80 percent. That helps.

We hope the decision stands and that Exxon Mobil delivers the justice the court has ordered without delay. Thousands of Alaskans have waited long enough.

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