The Exxon Valdez civil litigation has generated what appears to be the largest fee ever approved by a court for a team of plaintiffs’ lawyers at $1.3 billion. The award, reported in next month’s American Lawyer magazine, includes more than $350 million in interest split among more than 60 law firms.

The $1.3 billion fee was awarded by federal district court judge H. Russel Holland.

“Some tobacco plaintiffs fees appear larger on their face, but they’ll be paid over decades, reducing their value and those fees were awarded by an arbitration panel, not a court,” notes senior writer Susan Beck in her report. “Over 15 years, lawyers and paralegals clocked more than 1.2 million hours on this case. The fee request alone filled 200 binders.”

Two firms not typically known for this type of work lead the plaintiffs’ team: Minneapolis’s Faegre & Benson and Seattle’s Davis Wright Tremaine. Whether lawyers will ever collect the fee is another matter. Judge Holland has been tussling with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit over this case. In 2002, the appeals court ruled that a $5 billion punitive award was too much and ordered Holland to reduce it. The judge shaved it to $4 billion. When the Ninth Circuit vacated that award, Holland reacted on January 28 by increasing punitive damages to $4.5 billion. He issued his fee ruling the next day, calculating the contingency fee based on a $4.5 billion recovery. “Exxon (Mobil Corporation) put up an unflagging, spare-no-expense defense that might have been overwhelming but for the skill and resources of class counsel,” the judge wrote in making the award.

Lead trial counsel Brian O’Neill of Faegre & Benson insists he’s confident the punitive award and the fee will survive, despite the Ninth Circuit’s hostility. O’Neill represents more than 32,000 fishermen, business owners, and others harmed by the 11 million gallon oil spill. O’Neill has spent most of the last 15 years on the Valdez case and notes that it has exacted a heavy personal toll. Of the 15 Faegre lawyers who started this case with him, only one is currently in the same marriage or personal relationship.

In court papers, Exxon called the plaintiffs’ fee request unreasonable and faulted the plaintiffs for not turning over sufficiently detailed time records.

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