When a federal jury in Alaska in 1994 ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion to thousands of people who had their lives disrupted by the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, an appeal of the nation’s largest punitive damages award was inevitable.
But almost no one could have predicted the incredible round of legal ping-pong that only this month lands at the Supreme Court.
In the time span of the battle — 14 years after the verdict, nearly two decades since the spill itself — claimants’ lawyers say there is a new statistic to add to the grim legacy of the disaster in Prince William Sound: Nearly 20 percent of the 33,000 fishermen, Native Alaskans, cannery workers and others who triumphed in court that day are dead.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the Exxon case. The case stems back to one of the worst ecological events in the last few decades, the oil spill resulting from the supertanker Exxon Valdez’s running aground. Exxon is appealing a $2.5 billion punitive damages award. Exxon thought the Court was ripe to reverse large punitive damage awards because of recent cases striking them down in constitutional grounds, but the Court is not going to review the punitive damages on those grounds. Instead, the Court will be looking at Exxon’s maritime law-related claims.
What is interesting in that choice (other than the obvious interest that Alaskan Native and Pacific NW tribes have in the direct impact of the event) is that maritime or admiralty law is a uniquely federal field of law that has very little constitutional grounding. In other words, it is practically an all-federal common law field — just like federal Indian law.
And, as we know from federal Indian law, the Court is not constrained by constitutional and statutory language when applying federal Indian law. My guess is that the Court will strike down the punitive damage award, or else they would have let this award stand.