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A federal jury has opened the way for victims of the Exxon Valdez disaster to seek $15 billion in punitive damages from Exxon Corp. and skipper Joseph Hazelwood, ruling that their recklessness led to the nation's worst oil spill.

The more than 10,000 fishermen, Alaska natives and property owners who are suing contend that Hazelwood was drunk the night of the spill and that Exxon had known about his drinking for years and left him in command anyway.The jury deliberated for more than four days before finding recklessness, a necessary step in the plaintiffs' attempt to collect punitive damages for the 11-million-gallon spill that blackened Prince William Sound in 1989. The jury also said Monday that Hazelwood acted negligently.

The 12 jurors will decide how much to award in damages during the next phase of the case, expected to begin next month.

"It's my fervent hope the punitives are set at a level that will not be just a drop in the bucket for Exxon," said Dorne Hawxhurst, executive director of the 300-member Cordova District Fishermen United. "Exxon effectively ruined our community, and I don't want to see that happen to others."

The plaintiffs are seeking $15 billion in punitive damages and about $1.5 billion in compensatory damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish and deter wrongdoing. Compensatory damages cover actual losses.

Hazelwood refused to answer questions. One of his lawyers, Thomas Russo, said the former tanker captain will keep trying to clear his name.

At Exxon's Texas headquarters, Chairman Lee Raymond apologized to the victims and said the company has been punished enough. The company has said the spill has cost it more than $3 billion.