A federal jury in Alaska decided on Thursday that the Exxon Corp. must pay $286.8 million in compensatory damages to Alaskan fishermen, about a third of what they said was due them for harm caused by the nation's worst oil tanker spill five years ago.
The verdict was delivered in the second phase of a three-pronged trial that began 15 weeks ago in Federal District Court in Anchorage. It came 23 days after the jury of nine women and three men began deliberations on claims of damages by more than 10,000 fishermen working the waters of Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and Kodiak Island.The decision was another indication that the jury was methodically and independently weighing the sharply differing stories that were being told about the Exxon Valdez wreck and its aftermath.
Exxon had estimated that the losses to commercial fisheries amounted to $113 million; the plaintiffs sought $895 million in compensatory damages. Exxon's legal team on Thursday argued that, on balance, the verdict seemed to favor their side, a point that the plaintiff's lead trial attorney, Brian O'Neill, did not vigorously dispute.
"It isn't what I wanted," O'Neill said. "I don't know what it means for the next phase. This is a very independent-minded group. Right now you just don't know how the ledger washes. I know it does mean one thing: the case won't settle. It will stiffen Exxon a bit."
In June, the same jury found, in the first phase of the trial, that the Valdez spill on March 24, 1989, was caused by the reckless behavior of Exxon's executives and the captain of the Exxon Valdez, Joseph J. Hazelwood. In the third and final phase of the trial, which resumes on Aug. 22, the same jury will decide whether Exxon is liable for punitive damages. The plaintiffs are seeking $15 billion.
After Thursday's verdict, one of Exxon's trial lawyers, Patrick Lynch, said that he was pleased with the latest decision by the jury.