While much attention today has been paid to the Supreme Court’s Guns 4 Everyone! decision, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that yesterday the Not So Judicial Activist firm of Souter, Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy & Thomas struck a blow against punitive damages run amok:
After a 14-year battle, the final verdict has left plaintiffs reeling.
WHEN the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, Andrew Wills was a successful herring fisherman in Alaska and the owner of three canneries.
The oil spill, caused when the supertanker piloted by a drunken captain ran aground in Prince William Sound, sent a cascade of about 41 million litres of crude oil into Arctic waters. The huge spill destroyed the rich herring fishery and Mr Wills’ fishing career, so he borrowed money to open a bookshop, a cafe and the Mermaid Bed and Breakfast in downtown Homer, Alaska.
Mr Wills had expected to use his $US85,000 ($A88,000) share of the $US2.5 billion punitive damage settlement against Exxon to pay off some of his debts, but a US Supreme Court decision on Wednesday cut the damages to about $US500 million.
With soaring world oil prices, that sum represents two days’ earnings for Exxon, which last year posted record profits of $US40.6 billion.
Mr Wills will now only receive $US15,000 as his share of the revised damages. "After everything we’ve been through, that’s barely enough to cover payroll for a month," he said. "This is a knife in the gut."
Across Alaska, plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Exxon reacted to the decision with sorrow and rage. "I’m expecting a call that someone I know has jumped out of a building," said Evan Beedle, who lost his boat-cleaning business in Cordova after the spill.
During the long-running legal battle, there have been bankruptcies and suicides.
The average payment to the 33,000 plaintiffs was to be $US76,500 before Wednesday’s ruling. Now it’s down to about $US15,000.
Needless to say, counsel is none too happy with this development either:
The Minneapolis attorney who represented plaintiffs harmed in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster said he was "shocked" by today’s Supreme Court ruling to slash punitive damages in the case.
In a 5-3 ruling, the court said that Exxon Mobil Corp. should pay punitive damages in the case of $507.5 million, which is roughly one-fifth of the amount that a federal appeals court in 2006 said the company should pay.
That 2006 ruling cut in half the original $5 billion punitive award for fishermen, landowners and others who said they were harmed by the massive oil spill. The Minneapolis law firm of Faegre & Benson represented the single largest group of the roughly 32,000 plaintiffs in the case.
"There are 32,000 Alaska fishermen and natives who don’t have access to the money that they deserve to put their lives back together again," said Brian O’Neill, the lead trial attorney in the case and a partner with the locally based law firm. "There are 32,000 Alaska fishermen and natives who no longer believe in the justice system.
"And the Supreme Court essentially made law up out of whole cloth to help Exxon Mobil Corporation," O’Neill said.