The Supreme Court announced today, per The Washington Post, that it will consider Exxon’s fight against the biggest punitive damages award in history.  An Anchorage jury ordered the world’s biggest oil company to pay $5 billion in 1994 for letting an alcoholic who’d relapsed into dipsomania captain an enormous oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez.  Exxon’s entrustment of the vessel to Captain Joseph Hazelwood resulted in its 1989 grounding and rupture and catastrophic pollution of the coastline. 

The Ninth Circuit cut the award to $2.5 billion, but did that satisfy Exxon?  Nosir.

The Exxon Valdez after running aground on Bligh Reef.

Blawgletter read an op-ed thingy about the case last week in the WSJ.  From that item, one infers that the high court wants to fashion yet another way to stop punitive damages awards — by ruling that the malfeasor didn’t get enough notice that mere malfeasance could subject it to punitive damages.  Existing legal rules, Exxon argues, required it to "direct" or "countenance" the wrongful act before a jury could even think of awarding punies.

We note that reaching out for the Exxon Valdez case continues a pro-business trend by the Court.  It also suggests distrust, or worse, of juries.  What better case to signal to Americans that verdicts don’t count for much, that plaintiffs can win over and over only to see an appellate court take it all away more than a decade later?

Barry Barnett

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