Alaska editorial: Exxon should quit stalling and pay up

Posted: Friday, July 04, 2008

It's been a bitter business for the 32,000 or so plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez case. For almost two decades.

Last week, at least, it was supposed to be over. When the U.S. Supreme Court slashed the award to $507 million from $2.5 billion, the justices took much of the "punitive" from the term "punitive damages."

Alaska fishermen and other plaintiffs took the blow hard, but after watching their due dwindle in the years since the jury award of $5 billion in 1994, they weren't surprised. They had hoped for justice; they hadn't banked on it.

As of last week, they should have been able to bank something. Even now, after the high court's ruling, they can't count on that.

Exxon Mobil still has wiggle room. There seems to be a debate over just what $507 million means.

Does it mean $507 million with interest? Or has the court ruled that total damages can't top $507 million, as an Exxon spokesman suggested?

Exxon intends to wait - no surprise there - until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court in Anchorage sort that out. And Exxon may dispute whatever the lower courts conclude.

Alaskans would have been better off if the Supreme Court had said here's the final amount, to the penny, everything included. Case closed.

Instead, the final decision isn't quite final. Unless Exxon-Mobil decides to make it final.

That would be an act of decency.

Let's be clear. Exxon Mobil won this case. The corporation took a $5 billion award and over 14 years cut it to half a billion. Their attorneys did what they were paid to do, taking every legal recourse open to their clients. Time was on the corporation's side.

Not so for the surviving plaintiffs, who are almost 20 years older than they were when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and turned lives upside down.

That truth was what U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland had in mind in 2007, when he told lawyers for a few of the claimants to stop dithering so they wouldn't hold up payments when the case was finally resolved.

Now Exxon Mobil needs to stop dithering and pay up. Take the $507 million. Tack on the interest. Pay the lawyers. Pay yourself - Exxon has $107 million in damages coming to cover earlier, separate settlements with some Seattle fish processors. Then, for the love of God and justice, cut checks to the remaining plaintiffs and be done with it. It's not enough. But something beats nothing, and we're all burning daylight.

Maybe that's not how it's done by corporate heavyweights. Yet Exxon Mobil could tap the wisdom of another heavyweight, Winston Churchill, who wrote "In victory, magnanimity."

Or, in more prosaic terms, how about an old Alaska pool shark's code, which went something like this:

"Never completely clean a guy out. Always leave him enough for a last beer and car fare home. That way he can go out with dignity and you don't make an enemy."

Exxon Mobil made lasting enemies here long ago. But the corporation could at least show a flicker of enlightened self-interest. Exxon Mobil can't heal the wound, but Exxon Mobil could stop holding it open.

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