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Litigation History

The following summary of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and litigation is taken verbatim, unless otherwise indicated, from Judge Holland's Order 364. Footnotes have been omitted. A complete copy of Order 364 can be found here (PDF, 3.2MB).

The Grounding of the Exxon Valdez

Terrible things have happened in Alaska on Good Friday. On Good Friday, March 27, 1964, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America literally relocated the seabed of most of Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula. On Good Friday, March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez was run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

On March 24, 1989, Exxon's co-defendant, Joseph Hazelwood, was in command of the Exxon Valdez. He was assisted by a third mate and a helmsman. Captain Hazelwood was a skilled mariner, but he was an alcoholic. Worse yet, he was a relapsed alcoholic; and, before departing Valdez, Alaska, on March 23, 1989, he had, more probably than not, consumed sufficient alcohol to incapacitate a non-alcoholic. As the Exxon Valdez exited Valdez Arm, Captain Hazelwood assumed command of the vessel from a harbor pilot and made arrangements to divert the vessel from the normal shipping lanes in order to avoid considerable ice which had calved off Columbia Glacier. That diversion from the standard shipping lanes took the vessel directly toward Bligh Reef. The captain gave the third mate explicit, accurate orders which, if carried out by the third mate, would have returned the vessel to the shipping lanes without danger of grounding on Bligh Reef. The third mate, who had completed the requirements for a captain's license, was, more probably than not, overworked and excessively tired at the time in question. He neglected to commence a turn of the vessel at the point where, and the time when, he had been directed to do so. At that critical time, Captain Hazelwood had left the bridge to attend to paperwork. When the third mate realized that he had proceeded too far in the direction of Bligh Reef, he commenced a turn, but it was too late.

Like so many great tragedies, this one occurred when three or more unfortunate acts and/or omissions took place in close proximity to one another, and but for any one of them, the grounding would likely not have occurred. Joe Hazelwood was under the influence of alcohol. Instead of staying on the bridge to verify that his orders were carried out, he tended to paperwork below. The third mate, being overworked and tired, neglected to carry out the orders which he had been given. The grounding might still have been avoided but for several other converging circumstances: the captain had put the vessel on an automated system for increasing itsspeed prior to completing the maneuver around the ice in the shipping lane; and the third mate, upon realizing his oversight, did not turn the vessel as sharply as he might have.

It has never been established that there was any design, mechanical, or other fault in the Exxon Valdez. It responded to its human masters as intended and expected. Thus it is entirely clear why the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef: the cause was pure and simple human frailty.

Defendant Exxon Shipping owned the Exxon Valdez. Exxon employed Captain Hazelwood, and kept him employed knowing that he had an alcohol problem. The captain had supposedly been rehabilitated, but Exxon knew better before March 24, 1989. Hazelwood.had sought treatment for alcohol abuse in 1985 but had "fallen off the wagon" by the spring of 1986. Exxon knew that Hazelwood had relapsed and that he was drinking while on board ship. Exxon officials heard multiple reports of Hazelwood's relapse, and Hazelwood was being watched by other Exxon officers. Yet, Exxon continued to allow Hazelwood to command a supertanker carrying a hazardous cargo. Because Exxon did nothing despite its knowledge that Hazelwood was once again drinking, Captain Hazelwood was the person in charge of a vessel as long as three football fields and carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil. Exxon officials knew that it was dangerous to have a captain with an alcohol problem commanding a supertanker. Exxon officials also knew that oil and fisheries could not mix with one another. Exxon officials knew that carrying huge volumes of crude oil through Prince William Sound was a dangerous business, yet they knowingly permitted a relapsed alcoholic to direct the operation of the Exxon Valdez through Prince William Sound.

Captain Hazelwood came to the bridge immediately after the grounding. He timely reported to the United States Coast Guard:

Exxon Valdez [calling Valdez Traffic Control] . We should be on your radar there. We've fetched up hard aground north of Goose Island off Bligh Reef and evidently leaking some oil and we're gonna be here for a while...

Despite the fact that he was aware of oil boiling up through the seawater on both sides of the vessel, Captain Hazelwood attempted to extract the vessel from the reef. Had he succeeded in backing the vessel off the reef or driving it across the reef, the Exxon Valdez would probably have foundered, risking the loss of the entire cargo and the lives of those aboard. However, the vessel was really hard aground. It could wiggle but not be moved off Bligh Reef.

The best available estimate of the crude oil lost from the Exxon Valdez into Prince William Sound is about 11 million gallons. In the days following the grounding, about 42 million gallons of crude oil were lightered off the Exxon Valdez by other tankers. This process was very dangerous. The lightering process was necessarily taking place in a pool of crude oil. A spark from static electricity or other mechanical or electrical sources might have set fire to the crude oil.

The crude oil lost from the Exxon Valdez spread far and wide around Prince William Sound, mostly in a westerly direction. Counter-currents which pass through the sound in a westerly direction (the primary North Pacific currents flow from west to east) took the crude oil past numerous islands, spreading to the coast of the Kenai Peninsula, Cook Inlet, and Kodiak Island. As the oil spread, it disrupted the lives and livelihoods of those in its path, including the 32,677 punitive damages class members. Commercial fisheries throughout this area were totally disrupted, with entire fisheries being closed for the 1989 season. As a result, commercial fishermen not only suffered economic losses but also the emotional distress that comes from having one's means of making a living destroyed. A high percentage of commercial fishermen suffered from severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or a combination of all three. Subsistence fishing by residents of Prince William Sound and Lower Cook Inlet villages was also disrupted. The disruption to subsistence fishingdeeply affected Native Alaskans, for whom subsistence fishing is not merely a way to feed their families but an important part of their culture. Research indicated that Native Alaskans also experienced great emotional distress following the spill. Shore-based businesses dependent upon the fishing industry were also disrupted as were the resources of cities such as Cordova.

The Litigation

Litigation over the grounding was soon commenced. The civil suits came first, but developed slowly because of their number and complexity...

Exxon was prosecuted by the federal government for various environmental crimes: violating the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 1311(a) and 1319(c) (1); violating the Refuse Act,. 33 U.S.C. §§ 407 and 411; violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 703 and 707(a); violating the Ports and Waterways Safety Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1232(b) (1); and violating the Dangerous Cargo Act, 46 U.S.C. § 3718 (b). Exxon Corporation pled guilty to one count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Exxon Shipping pled guilty to one count each of violating the Clean Water Act, the Refuse Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They were jointly fined$25 million and were ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $100 million.

The civil cases (involving thousands of plaintiffs) were ultimately (but with a few exceptions) consolidated... Municipal claims and some Native corporation claims were tried in state court... As the time for trial grew near, [Judge Holland] became convinced of the necessity of creating a single, punitive damages claims class. On April 14, 1994, [Judge Holland] granted conditional final approval of a mandatory punitive damages class, consisting of all persons or entities who possess or have asserted claims for punitive damages against Exxon and/or Exxon Shipping which arise from or relate in any way to the grounding of the EXXON VALDEZ or the resulting oil spill.

By agreement with the parties, trial as regards Exxon's and Captain Hazelwood's liability for punitive damages was commenced on May 2, 1994. In this Phase I of the trial, the jury found Exxon and Captain Hazelwood to be liable for punitive damages.

Phase II of the trial dealt with compensatory damages for plaintiffs' economic losses. In Phase IIA, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the fishermen in the amount of $287 million. Phase lIB, a separate aspect of the compensatory claims having to do with the Native economic claims, was settled without trial for $22.6 million.

Phase III of the trial focused upon the amount of punitive damages which should be imposed upon the defendants. As a predicate or base for the punitive damages trial, the parties entered into a stipulation regarding impacts from. the oil spill which was read to the jury at the beginning of. Phase III. The stipulation outlined the actual damages that had been resolved in Phase IIB of the trial and the actual damages that were to be resolved in Phase IV of the trial and in Alaska state court proceedings. The damage estimates outlined in the stipulation exceeded $350 million. The jury was, of course, also aware that it had awarded $287 million in damages in Phase IIA of the trial. The evidence presented during Phase III focused on Exxon's and Hazelwood's conduct as it related to the oil spill. While evidence of extra-territorial conduct was admitted, it had a nexus to the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and the resulting oil spill.

In consultation with counsel, unusually detailed punitive damages instructions were developed for purposes of this case. The jury was instructed that punitive damages are awarded for the purposes of punishment and deterrence, and that the fact that it had found the defendants' conduct reckless did not require it to award punitive damages. The jury was specifically instructed to use reason in setting the amount of punitive damages and that any award of punitive damages should bear a reasonable relationship to the harm caused the members of the plaintiff class by the defendants' misconduct. The jury was instructed that punitive damages are not intended to provide compensation for plaintiffs' losses and that they should assume that the plaintiffs had been fully compensated for the damages that they had suffered as a result of the oil spill. Factors that the jury was told it could consider in setting an amount of punitive damages included the reprehensibility of the defendants' conduct, the amount of actual and potential harm suffered by the members of the plaintiff class as a result of the defendants' conduct, and the financial condition of the defendants As to the reprehensibility factor, the jury was instructed that in determining the reprehensibility of the defendants' conduct it could consider "the nature of the conduct, the duration of the conduct, and defendant's awareness that the conduct was occurring. As to the defendants' wealth, the jury was instructed to consider the defendants' financial condition only in terms of what level of award would be necessary to achieve punishment and deterrence.

The jury was instructed that it should not count any damage to natural resources or the environment in general when assessing the harm suffered by members of the plaintiff class. The jury was also instructed that it could consider as mitigating factors the existence of criminal fines or civil awards against the defendants for the same conduct and the extent to which the defendants had taken steps to remedy the consequences of the oil spill and to prevent another oil spill.

The Phase III trial was relatively short, lasting only five days, but the jury deliberated for approximately twenty-two days before returning a verdict, [awarding] $5 billion in punitive damages against the Exxon defendants, and $5,000 against Captain Hazelwood.

There was to be a Phase IV of the civil litigation. The Phase IV claims embodied all of the compensatory damage claims remaining in federal court and not included in Phase II. As to these claims, a settlement was reached in the amount of $13.4 million.

After lengthy other proceeding, final judgment was entered in including the award of $5 billion in punitive damages. At the time, it was the largest punitive damages verdict in U.S. history. Following appeals, the punitive damages verdict in U.S. history. Following appeals, the punitive damages award was reduced to $500 million by the United States Supreme Court.


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