The Supreme Court agreed today to review some aspects of the worst oil spill in United States history, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster that fouled hundreds of miles of Alaska’s shoreline.
The justices will consider the case on grounds that are narrow but nevertheless of great importance: whether maritime law allows for the imposition of punitive damages, an issue on which lower federal courts are divided. The issue is worth $2.5 billion to the ExxonMobil Corporation. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who owns a substantial amount of ExxonMobil stock, will not take part in the case.
Since the early morning of March 24, 1989, when the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez episode has been debated and agonized over in courtrooms, boardrooms and environmental circles.
The tanker leaked some 11 million gallons of crude oil, spoiling some 1,500 miles of coastline and decimating the fish and wildlife populations for years afterward. Hundreds of bald eagles and otters, scores of killer whales and thousands of birds of other species perished, as did untold numbers of salmon, herring, clams, mussels and other forms of aquatic life.
The spill caused personal tragedy and hardship as well as environmental damage. The livelihoods of Alaska fishermen were threatened, and a decade after the disaster the shoreline was still not back to its pre-spill condition. And the ship’s skipper, Joseph Hazelwood, became a reviled figure among many environmentalists, even though the calamity that occurred under his command was indisputably an accident.
But an accident that was waiting to happen, those who sued Exxon have argued for years.
“Hazelwood was the only captain and the only officer on board licensed to navigate the tanker through the critical parts of Prince William Sound,” some of the many plaintiffs said in one court filing. “Predictably, he was also drunk.”
Still feeling the effects of at least five double-strength whiskeys he had downed in waterfront bars, Captain Hazelwood was resting in his cabin as the tanker and its 53 million gallons of oil ran aground while a tired third mate was on the bridge, the plaintiffs maintained.
A federal court jury found in 1994 that ExxonMobil and its captain were reckless and negligent, and ordered the corporation to pay $5 billion in punitive damages. Eventually, the award was reduced on appeal to $2.5 billion by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which held that, while the oil company had committed “reckless misconduct” in placing a known relapsed alcoholic at the helm of the tanker, its misconduct was not so egregious as to warrant the higher punishment figure.