WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed inclined Wednesday to let Exxon Mobil Corp. off the hook for some of the $2.5-billion the energy giant was ordered to pay as punishment for an enormous oil spill in Alaska nearly 19 years ago.
The justices questioned lawyers for the company and for nearly 33,000 victims of the Exxon Valdez disaster for 90 minutes, making only one passing reference to Exxon's record profits. The award represents less than three weeks' worth of Exxon profit, which was $11.7-billion in the last three months of 2007.
Exxon has vigorously fought to knock down or erase the punitive damages verdict by a jury in Alaska in 1994 for the accident that dumped 11-million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The environmental disaster fouled 1,200 miles of Alaskan coastline and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals.
The Supreme Court in recent years has become more receptive to limiting punitive damages awards. The Exxon Valdez case differs from the others in that it involves issues peculiar to laws governing accidents on the water. But several justices said that limits could be appropriate in this context, too.
Overall, Exxon has paid $3.4-billion in fines, penalties, cleanup costs, claims and other expenses resulting from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Stanford University law professor Jeffrey Fisher said the commercial fishermen, native Alaskans, landowners, businesses and local governments he represents have each received about $15,000 so far "for having their lives and livelihood destroyed and haven't received a dime of emotional distress damages."
Fisher said nothing in prior Supreme Court decisions should cause the justices to overturn the $2.5-billion award, about $75,000 for each plaintiff.
It was less clear how the court would rule on the issue of whether the company should have to pay damages at all under the Clean Water Act and centuries-old laws governing shipping. Justice Samuel Alito, who owns Exxon stock, is not taking part in the case. A 4-4 split on that or any issue would leave the appeals court ruling in place.
A decision is expected before summer.
The case is Exxon Shipping Co. vs. Baker, 07-219.
Court: Federal mistake shouldn't stop case
The Supreme Court decided Wednesday that employees who claim job discrimination should not suffer because of mistakes made by the federal agency charged with investigating their allegations. The 7-2 ruling allows an age discrimination lawsuit to proceed against FedEx Corp.
The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy is critical of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which failed to notify FedEx that 14 employees had filed a complaint. Companies must be told about complaints before discrimination lawsuits can be filed.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented in Federal Express Corp. vs. Holowecki, 06-1322.