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Exxon Oil Spill Case May Get Closure; Almost 20 Years After Valdez Wreck, Justices To Weigh In

Publication Date: 
February 24, 2008
The Washington Post
Robert Barnes

Almost two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, Jeff Fisher will present oral argument before the Supreme Court in "Exxon Shipping v. Baker." Fisher has submitted evidence on DVD, including videotaped damage cause by the spill and audio of the captain's distress call. Robert Barnes of the Washington Post reports:

When a federal jury in Alaska in 1994 ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion to thousands of people who had their lives disrupted by the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, an appeal of the nation's largest punitive damages award was inevitable.

But almost no one could have predicted the incredible round of legal ping-pong that only this month lands at the Supreme Court.


The high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether punishment is excessive or even permitted under maritime law. The case, Exxon Shipping v. Baker, may turn, in the eyes of the justices, on a nearly 200-year-old precedent set when privateer ships sailed the oceans, or on the more recent provisions of the Clean Water Act.


Jeffrey L. Fisher, a Stanford law professor who will argue the case for plaintiffs, has sent the court a DVD containing photos and footage taken at the time of the spill, video of Exxon executives acknowledging fault and an audiotape of the distress call made by what plaintiffs claim to be a clearly drunk Capt. Joseph Hazelwood reporting that the Exxon Valdez had hit Bligh Reef.

Fisher said it is important to remind the justices of the events of 19 years ago, and that the jury was punishing Exxon for "socially outrageous behavior."

"One of the dangers for us is that outrage dissipates over time, and it is hard to get back to the place where the country was at that time," he said.

Justices have extended the allotted time for oral arguments, and the briefs filed on both sides indicate that the events of the grounding might be explored yet again.