Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Class Action

In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground on the Bligh Reef in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. As the hull was breached, the resulting flood of diesel, oil and industrial chemicals unleashed an environmental disaster unlike anything ever seen in the United States. Until the BP Disaster of 2010, the Exxon Valdez spill was considered to be the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States.

The resulting damage of the spill led to an historic legal battle between the people who were affected by the tragedy and those who were responsible for it. As the operator of the tanker, Exxon Mobile was held responsible for the spill and all of the consequences that arose from it. Of course, the company came forward to offer financial backing for the clean up, but those who were most impacted by the disaster felt that it was not enough. Due to immense public outcry demanding more from the company, a class-action lawsuit against Exxon was launched.

The lawsuit centered around the far-reaching impacts that the spill had on the livelihoods of the people that lived in the area. The environmental impact was itself catastrophic, but there was much more damaged than pristine shorelines. Over 32,000 fishermen saw their income plummet as a result of the disaster. Alaskan fisheries were among the hardest hit of all the industries in Alaska, and the impact of the spill is still felt today in some communities.

Native communities in Alaska were also gravely affected by the spill. In Alaska, many communities are largely cut off from the outside world. In these communities, people still regularly meet the majority of their dietary needs through hunting, fishing and foraging. The spill decimated traditional seaweed harvest, clamming and fishing zones that are vital to the natives of the area. The native corporations overseeing the various affected boroughs took it upon themselves to join the lawsuit.

In 1994, a federal jury returned a verdict on the first class-action suit that ordered Exxon Mobile to pay $5 billion in punitive damages. This was on top of what the company was already paying in restitution, fines and cleanup fees. The legal battle didn't end there, and in 2001 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the $5 billion verdict was too excessive. In 2002, the punitive damage award was reinstated at $4 billion by Judge H. Russell Holland. In his statement, Holland stated that Exxon had knowingly place a relapsed alcoholic at the helm of the tanker, which resulted in severe liability on the part of the company.

In 2003, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals once again stated that the award was too punitive. Judge Holland was directed to re-evaluate the amount of the award. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set its own ruling and placed the damages at $2.5 billion. This seemingly final victory for those affected by the disaster was short-lived, as the Supreme Court weighed in on the case and found the damages to be still too severe.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the damages should be no more than $507.5 million. In the end, after all of the legal posturing and after years of litigation, Exxon Mobile has found itself with a $1.515 billion bill resulting from the spill. The majority of the money paid has been set aside for use in environmental remediation to help support fisheries. Some of the money has been used as a stimulus to those most affected by the spill itself and its aftermath.

The results of the Exxon Valdez oil spill class-action lawsuit extend far beyond money. As a result of the lawsuit, legislators were forced to look at how oil was transported through Prince William Sound. From this "closer look" sprang the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. This act mandates that any oil tanker which has previously spilled up to or more than 1 million US gallons of oil into a marine environment be barred from entry into the sound. The suit also led to a major push for phasing-in the double-hull design. The Coast Guard believes this design could have lessened the impact of the spill by more than half.