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Supreme Court May Be Divided Over Exxon Valdez Damages

Publication Date: 
February 27, 2008
Los Angeles Times
David G. Savage

David Savage filed this report about the Exxon Valdez hearing in the Supreme Court of the United States, in which Jeffrey Fisher argued that punitive damages should be upheld:

The Supreme Court justices sounded closely split today on whether to uphold a record $2.5 billion verdict to punish Exxon Mobil Corp. for the Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Several justices said the court might well lower the amount of the award to keep it in line with other legal limits on punishing corporate wrongdoing.

But only eight justices heard the case, creating the possibility of a tie vote. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. withdrew because he holds Exxon stock. His move could cost the company dearly, since a tie vote would have the effect of affirming the $2.5 billion award.


Stanford Law professor Jeffrey Fisher, representing the workers, said the world's largest oil company deserved to be punished "for putting a drunk in charge of a supertanker." The company had many warnings over three years that Hazelwood, a known alcoholic, had resumed drinking, he said.


Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to side with Exxon.

Roberts said Exxon had a policy against drinking by its captains and shipmates. "What if there is a breach of the corporate policy? What more can a corporation do?" he asked.

Fisher said the company should have enforced its policy. "There was no serious enforcement," he said, since the warnings about Hazelwood were ignored.