Twin Cities lawyers are all a twitter today waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the $2.5 billion damages in the Exxon Valdez case. This is the last week the court will be in session, and as of noon it had issued decisions in all but seven of the cases it has heard since October.
“Everyone is on pins and needles waiting for the decision,” said David Lebedoff, author of “Cleaning Up,” a 1997 Minnesota Book award winner about the case. “I know I certainly am, and I have no money stake in it.”
This case has gone on for a generation. Almost 20 years ago the Exxon Valdez, under the direction of a drunken captain, ran aground in Prince William Sound and gushed 11 million gallons of oil, fouling one of the most pristine shorelines in the United States. Fishermen, represented by a team of attorneys at Minneapolis-based Faegre and Benson, sued the oil company giant. Almost 15 years ago a jury awarded the fishermen $5 billion in punitive damages. Later courts cut that down to $2.5 billion. Exxon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, to the shock of just about every one watching the case, the court agreed to hear it.
Part of the interest in this case is that people have been thinking about it for so many years. “Whatever the decision of the court, it’s disgraceful that it took so long,” Lebedoff said.
A second reason for the intense interest is the amount of money involved. Even though the punitive damages have been cut in half, the money has been earning interest in the years since the first decision, bringing the actual total damages back up to about $5 billion.
Another quirk in the already quirky case is that Justice Sam Alito recused himself from the case because he owns stock in Exxon. That is significant because it means to win one side would have to garner five of eight votes, instead of five of nine. And most observers who have studied his record think Alito would have voted with Exxon.
What might the court do?
If a majority find for the fishermen, or if the court is so splintered that there is no majority, the amount of the punitive damages remains the same. If a majority sides with Exxon, the fishermen could get nothing.
Chief Justice Roberts’ questions indicated that he was on the side of Exxon, said Lebedoff, who watched the case argued before the court last February. Justice Ruth Ginsberg seemed to favor the fishermen. The six other justices seemed to fall somewhere in between.
“Roberts likes as much consensus as he can get,” Lebedoff said. “To get that he might bargain to lower the punitive judgment.”
Trial lawyers all over the country will be watching this because it could set a stricter standard for punitive damages, said Lebedoff, who guessed that the court will reduce the damages somewhat.
Will the decision come yet today? Wednesday or Thursday? No one really knows.
“While there is wild speculation among the lawyers involved, the only ones who know are the judges and their clerks, and I’m quite sure they’re not talking,” said Lebedoff.
Meanwhile, the refresh button on the court’s website is getting a serious workout around town today and perhaps through the week.