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Riki Ott: When Harm Goes Unpunished

Riki Ott, author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, posted an editorial on The Huffington Post asked Congress to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision to cut ExxonMobil’s liability for the Exxon-Valdez disaster by nearly 80%.

From the article:

Cordova, Alaska. When the Supreme Court slashed punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez case last month, it was more than a travesty of justice. The court’s decision also charted a dangerous course for America–one largely overlooked in the flurry of coverage on the court’s other eleventh-hour, high-profile decisions, but one that renders our legal system incapable of protecting people from long-term harm caused by corporations as large and profitable as ExxonMobil. Unless Congress acts to overturn this ruling, the court has paved the way for corporate rights to trump individual rights whenever manmade disasters put people, their livelihoods, or both, at risk.

Here, in a nutshell, are pieces of the Exxon Valdez story that are familiar to most news-reading Americans: 19 years ago, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, causing the largest oil spill in the United States, contaminating 10,000 square miles of ocean and 3,200 miles of pristine coastline, and trashing the local fishing industry and the communities it supports.

And, here are the lesser known elements of the story: after Exxon got thousands of claims thrown out of court, the roughly 32,000 that remained were heard by a jury that awarded spill victims $5 billion in punitive damages and another $287 million in compensatory damages. The compensatory damages were only for short-term harm–mostly fisheries closures in 1989–and not for the long-term harm that we have since experienced in Prince William Sound from collapsed fisheries. Exxon, then ExxonMobil, appealed the punitive award, and the Ninth Circuit judges cut that award in half despite finding no legal reason to do so. ExxonMobil appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court–keeping the case unsettled for nearly two decades–and that court slashed the punitive award to just $507 million, a mere 10 percent of the original award and an amount so small, after court expenses, that many plaintiffs face bankruptcies, foreclosures, and other financial distress from debt stemming from this spill.

But that is not the worst of it. The biggest injustice is that the Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent by ruling to limit the size of punitive damages in maritime cases to no more than compensatory damages. In other words, the court set a cap of 1:1 punitive to compensatory damages.

It is just a matter of time before this precedent in maritime law is extended to other fields of law–which will affect everyone in America.

No community should have to go through what we, in Cordova and other oiled communities, have been through. Livelihoods have been lost, financial stress has broken families apart, businesses supported by fishermen have crumbled, and our environment remains oiled after 19 years awaiting compensation. Ultimately, the law could not replace what we lost. And the Supreme Court has just assured that others will fare no better in future manmade disasters, unless we act now.

Read the full article here.


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