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Exxon Valdez case at the Supreme Court: highlights and analysis

After almost 20 years, the Alaska fishermen, whose livelihoods were caught in the muck of 11 million gallons of oil dumped in the pristine Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez, took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court today.

The fishermen say they deserve the $2.5 billion in punitive damages that lower courts have awarded them. Exxon says the amount is way over the top.
As I reported on last week, Minneapolis attorney Brian O’Neill and other lawyers from Faegre & Benson have represented  about 300 of the fishermen. Until today O’Neill had argued for the fishermen at each of the many twists and turns the case has taken. O’Neill and two other attorneys have managed the enormous, hugely complicated case representing 33,000 fishermen from the beginning.

Here are some highlights and analysis of the arguments (PDF) before the justices:

• Judging from his questions, Justice Antonin Scalia seems predisposed toward Exxon. At one point Scalia misspoke that the court took the case because of the $3.5 billion penalty – the correct amount was $2.5 billion.

• Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to side with the fishermen, noting that there was clear evidence Exxon’s upper managers were aware that Captain Joseph Hazelwood, who was captain the night the ship went aground, was an alcoholic who had resumed drinking.

• Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter were struggling to come up with a formula for assigning punitive damages.

• Justice Stephen Breyer referred to the penalty as “a huge amount of money” but added that the idea of such punishment is to “impose enormous deterrence upon large firms involved in your industry.”

• Walter Dellinger, who argued the case for Exxon, seemed to be peppered with far more questions than Jeffrey Fisher, who argued for the fishermen.

A decision is expected before the court’s term ends in June.

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