Case will be argued in the United States Supreme Court this year
BALTIMORE (Jan. 30, 2008) - Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler announced today that Maryland has taken the lead role in support of the plaintiffs in a major case involving the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Thirty-three other states have signed on to Maryland's amicus curiae brief in Baker vs. Exxon, which will be argued in the United States Supreme Court this year. Attorney General Gansler and Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna (R. WA) co-signed a letter to Attorneys General nationwide, encouraging them to join the brief prepared by Gansler's office. The brief supports the claims of commercial fisherman, Native Alaskans, private landowners, and an array of businesses that depended on the pristine environment and fisheries of Alaska's Prince William Sound.
The brief argues that since 48 states allow punitive damages, federal maritime law should hold corporations accountable for recklessness occurring on the water to the same extent that state law holds them accountable for land-based misconduct. The brief also contends that the court should reject Exxon's argument that the federal Clean Water Act precludes federal maritime law from providing for punitive damages.
"The reckless discharge of toxic material into our coastal waters will not be tolerated," said Attorney General Gansler. "Exxon has the obligation to step up and ensure that every business, landowner, and family that was directly impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill is made whole again."
"The State of Alaska certainly believes Exxon is wrong and has worked very hard preparing a brief to persuade the Supreme Court to affirm the jury's award," said Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg. "Holding Exxon accountable for its actions would encourage those who use our coastal waters to operate in a careful and safe manner. The State thanks Attorney General Gansler and his staff for the insight they have provided the Court on the issues in this case that are of great importance not only to Alaska, but to all states."
In 1989, Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of unrefined Alaskan crude oil into Prince William Sound, creating one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history. The region was a habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals, sea birds and the great white shark.
In 1994, in the case of Baker vs. Exxon, an Anchorage jury awarded $287 million for actual damages (later increased to $504 million) and $5 billion for punitive damages. Exxon appealed the ruling, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the original judge to reduce the punitive damages. In December 2002, the judge announced that he had reduced the damages to $4 billion. Exxon appealed again, sending the case back to court to be considered in regard to a recent Supreme Court ruling. Punitive damages were increased to $4.5 billion, plus interest.
In December 2006, the Ninth Circuit reduced the punitive damages award to $2.5 billion in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that placed constitutional limitations on punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit denied Exxon's petition for rehearing. On October 29, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Exxon's petition for certioriari and will hear oral arguments on February 27, 2008.
An estimated 32,000 claimants represented by up to 60 different law firms await the outcome of the case. The $2.5 billion award amounts to approximately $75,000 per plaintiff. More than a third of class members reside in states other than Alaska. About 20-percent of the plaintiffs in the case are no longer living.
A total of 33 states have agreed to sign on to Maryland's brief including: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia, Hawaii, Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.
Source: Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler