WASHINGTON - People who are owed money from the Exxon Valdez lawsuit have asked the Supreme Court to make it clear that they must get interest payments, even though the court cut the punitive damages award last month from $2.5 billion to $507 million.
Lawyers for the fishermen and other plaintiffs in the case have calculated that interest will add up to about $488 million, bringing the total amount that Exxon Mobil owes from the 1989 oil spill to nearly $1 billion. Minus attorney's fees, an estimated $628 million would be divided among the more than 32,000 plaintiffs in the case.
The punitive damages originally were awarded in 1994 as punishment for Exxon's role in the spill, which leaked 11 million gallons of crude oil into the fishing waters of Prince William Sound.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs think that they're entitled to interest, but after so many years of wrangling with Exxon, they're making sure, said Brian O'Neill, a Minnesota lawyer who represents the plaintiffs. He filed a brief with the Supreme Court earlier this week as a safeguard.
"It's to make sure that we don't make a technical mistake," O'Neill said. "It's just to make sure that we are clearly entitled to the interest . . . and that we don't waive it. With this amount of money at stake, you use a belt AND suspenders."
That doesn't mean they're not worried about Exxon, as they point out in their filings. "If past is prologue, there is real risk that Exxon would exploit any lack of clarity concerning interest to prolong this litigation still further," lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote.
Exxon hasn't said whether it will appeal the interest owed in the case.
Company lawyers are reading what the plaintiffs just filed and waiting for the case to be sent back to the appellate court in San Francisco and finally to the U.S. District Court in Anchorage, where it was first heard, Exxon Mobil spokesman Tony Cudmore said.
"We need to understand what the plaintiffs have asked for in their submission, we need to review that and we need to understand the court's views. We will certainly comply with the final order," Cudmore said.
He added: "Just to be clear, we are anxious to have the matter resolved. We've got no desire to delay a final outcome."
Exxon never disputed the district court's determination in the case that the plaintiffs are entitled to interest dating to the original judgment, O'Neill said in the brief filed this week with the Supreme Court.
Courts have discretion in whether to award interest but they usually do, said Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Federal court rules call for interest to be paid at a particular Federal Reserve rate available at the time of the award. In this case, it was 5.9 percent.
When deciding whether to award interest, judges take a number of factors into account, Rothstein said, such as how long the litigation went on and the recalcitrance of the people who own the money; that is, whether they've been dragging out the case deliberately.