While others waded the oil-soaked shores of Prince William Sound following the Exxon Valdez disaster, Patience Andersen Faulkner was knee deep in something much worse.
In the years following the worst oil spill in U.S. waters in history, Faulkner's job was to chronicle the damage heaped on fishermen and other people in and around Cordova after the 1989 spill. She worked for attorneys pursuing a class action lawsuit against ExxonMobil and submitted damage claims to the company.
"It was very personal for everyone," Faulkner said. "We've had a number of suicides that I think are from the Exxon Valdez. We've had a lot of destroyed relationships."
A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled on Wednesday that the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by an Anchorage jury against ExxonMobil was excessive. The panel ordered a lower court to reduce that amount.
David Oesting, a lawyer representing fishermen in the case, said he was considering whether to ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider its decision or to request the U.S. Supreme Court to review it.
He said that no matter the outcome, he expects Exxon will be liable for a hefty penalty.
The ruling sparked anger among fishermen and others affected by the spill and prompted Gov. Tony Knowles to consider intervening.
"That $5 billion would have at least put a finger in the dike," Faulkner said.
"The average seiner fisherman's income here is a little over half what it was before the Exxon oil spill," said Riki Ott, a marine biologist and former fisherman from Cordova.
Faulkner's family owned a fishing permit valued at about $210,000 before the spill. If she still owned it, the permit would be worth about $50,000 for anyone foolish enough to buy it, she said.
Small numbers of salmon straggle back annually, but the herring are long gone and local fishermen blame ExxonMobil.
"We all recognize violence doesn't help, but we sure would like to choke them," Faulkner said.
R.J. Kopchak fished for about 28 years but took a job with the city of Cordova to make ends meet three years ago. Herring was about half of his income. Now he's selling his herring equipment for pennies on the dollar.
"I'm devastated. We were just hoping to be compensated for our losses out of the punitive damages," Kopchak said.
A federal jury in Anchorage ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion in 1994 to thousands of commercial fisherman, Alaska Natives, property owners and others harmed by the nation's worst oil spill.
The amount was equal to a year's worth of Exxon's profits, and at the time it was the largest punitive damage award in history.
In its ruling Wednesday, the Court of Appeals in San Francisco said some damages were justified to punish the company for its harmful behavior, but that $5 billion was excessive.
The appeals court said that for every dollar in compensatory damages, the jury awarded more than $17 in punitive damages a ratio that would not get by the U.S. Supreme Court.
ExxonMobil argued that the award for punitive damages "is completely unwarranted, unfair and is excessive by any legal or practical matter."
Lee Raymond, chairman of the Irving, Texas, oil company, said through a statement that ExxonMobil took responsibility for the spill and already has paid more than $3 billion in clean up costs and compensation.
The decision "confirmed ExxonMobil's position that the $5 billion punitive damage award related to the Exxon Valdez accident is excessive," he said in the statement released Wednesday.
Exxon spent $2.2 billion on the spill cleanup from 1989-92 and paid $300 million in compensation to 11,000 people, the company said. Exxon also paid another $1 billion in civil damages, fines and criminal restitution.
Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho said the court ruling affirmed that the company should be liable for punitive damages.
"We know that thousands of families have been impacted by the spill. It's not over," Botelho said.
The state was not part of the lawsuit but reached a negotiated agreement with the federal government and Exxon in 1991.
Gov. Knowles said Wednesday that he will attempt to bring the two sides to a negotiated settlement, saying the case has dragged on too long.
"The Exxon Valdez oil spill has really been a cloud that has hung over those fishing families and communities for more than a decade," Knowles told the Associated Press. "The court decision today didn't bring any resolution to that."
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