ANCHORAGE - The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments Jan. 27 in San Francisco over whether plaintiffs should get $4.5 billion plus interest in punitive damages from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.
Plaintiff Steve Vanek, a Ninilchik commercial fisherman, is not expecting an answer soon.
"It will be another year or a year and a half before that bloody 9th Circuit makes a decision," Vanek predicted. "I won't count on it until I see the check."
It's impossible to predict when the 9th Circuit will rule, said attorney David Oesting.
Each year fewer fishermen, Native subsistence gatherers and other plaintiffs are still alive to track the court case. Oesting said he believes that around 3,000 plaintiffs have died while waiting for the billions in punitive damages a jury first ordered Exxon, now Exxon Mobil, to pay in 1994.
More than 30,000 plaintiffs from oiled areas remain, Oesting said.
The Exxon public affairs office referred inquiries to the company's Web site. The site offers a lengthy defense of the company position.
"Despite complaints by the plaintiffs, which are designed to sway public opinion, Exxon Mobil is exercising a fundamental right to appeal these damages, a right to which every American individual and company is entitled," the Web site said.
Exxon has paid over $3 billion in cleanup costs, government settlements, fines and compensation. The $4.5 billion at issue is punitive, Exxon said.
The Exxon Valdez ran aground on a charted reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989, creating America's largest tanker spill. The estimated 11 million gallons of spilled oil fouled the sound, contaminated an estimated 1,300 miles of shoreline, killed marine creatures and disrupted commercial fishing.