When he filed the first major lawsuit after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, famed California lawyer Melvin Belli proclaimed, with a measure of glee, “There will be native Alaskans, sea otters, beavers marching into court for years on end. It’ll never be over.”
Hyperbole aside, Belli has been proven right. No sea otters have been spotted, but lawyers are certainly still marching into court. On Feb. 27, they’ll be at the Supreme Court arguing what could be the final chapter of the legal wrangling over the damage caused by the spill. Arguments in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker will focus on a $2.5 billion verdict awarded against the oil company on behalf of a class of more than 32,000 commercial fishermen, Native Alaskans and other individuals and businesses harmed by the accident, which spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Exxon describes that judgment as “larger than the total of all punitive damages awards affirmed by all federal appellate courts in our history.” The plaintiffs call it “about three weeks of Exxon’s current net profits.”
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