At the High Court, Damage Control
Exxon Mobil, the giant oil corporation appearing before the Supreme Court yesterday, had earned a profit of nearly $40 billion in 2006, the largest ever reported by a U.S. company -- but that's not what bothered Roberts. What bothered the chief justice was that Exxon was being ordered to pay $2.5 billion -- roughly three weeks' worth of profits -- for destroying a long swath of the Alaska coastline in the largest oil spill in American history.
"So what can a corporation do to protect itself against punitive-damages awards such as this?" Roberts asked in court.
The lawyer arguing for the Alaska fishermen affected by the spill, Jeffrey Fisher, had an idea. "Well," he said, "it can hire fit and competent people."
The rare sound of laughter rippled through the august chamber. The chief justice did not look amused.
Arguing for the Alaskans, Fisher, a tall and lanky Stanford professor with unruly gray hair, pointed out to the justices that the spill "destroyed an entire regional economy." Yet Exxon fired only one person, Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, who even the oil company admitted was drunk at the time of the accident, while executives received bonuses and pay raises. "What you have today are 32,000 plaintiffs standing before this court, each of whom have received only $15,000 for having their lives and livelihood destroyed and haven't received a dime of emotional-distress damages," Fisher argued.