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Exxon to Pay $287 Million to Alaska Fishermen : Environment: The award in the federal case, reached after 23 days' deliberation, is to cover actual losses to business.

August 12, 1994|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Exxon Corp. was ordered Thursday to pay $287 million in damages to Alaska commercial fishermen who argued that the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill severely hurt their business.

The verdict, which awarded less than the $895 million sought by the 10,000 fishermen who work the waters off southeastern Alaska, came in the second phase of a massive trial in Anchorage against the nation's largest oil company.

A federal jury made the award after a painstaking 23 days of deliberation. The trial, which started May 1, stemmed from the largest civil suit arising from the accident in Alaska's Prince William Sound, where the Exxon tanker wandered from shipping lanes, ran aground and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil.

"It is less than we were asking for," said Brian O'Neill, lead trial counsel representing the fishermen. "You wish it would have been closer to $895 million, but we'll take it anyway."

The award covers compensatory damages, or the actual losses suffered by fishermen, without interest. The fishermen had argued that the spill resulted in lesser harvests of salmon and herring and sent fish prices plummeting.

Exxon had disputed the argument, denying that reduced fishing stocks resulted from the spill. Exxon had estimated the fishermen's losses at no greater than $113 million.

In a statement Thursday, Exxon said it was still studying the verdict. But, it added that "the amount Exxon will be called upon to pay is subject to adjustment, including a reduction to reflect payments already made by Exxon to many of the plaintiffs."

In a third phase of the trial, which will begin Aug. 22, testimony will focus on a demand by the fishermen and others that Exxon pay $15 billion in punitive damages. Last June, the jury found that the company's executives and Exxon Valdez Capt. Joseph Hazelwood had acted recklessly in the events leading up to the accident. That finding set the stage for the punitive-damages phase.

Should the fishermen and other plaintiffs prevail in the amount of punitive damages they are seeking, it would be the largest such award ever.

In Cordova, Alaska, fisherman Jim McCune said Thursday's verdict seemed "awful low." McCune, a third-generation Alaska fisherman, said the spill has cost him between $100,000 and $120,000 since 1989.

"The roughest years were right after the spill, 1990 and '91, when fishing was very restrictive and the prices of salmon went right down into the dumphole," said McCune, who is also president of Cordova District Fishermen United, a local fishermen's group that is one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

Pamela Brodie, associate Alaska representative for the Sierra Club in Anchorage, said she doubts the verdict will do much to deter accidents.

"Unfortunately," she said, "the main lesson the oil industry learned from the Exxon Valdez wreck was to unload the shipping part of the industry, so that the next time we have a big spill, it is unlikely to be a deep-pocket corporation, which means the victims may have no recourse. . . . I don't believe these awards will solve our problem."

In July, while the jury was deliberating the fishermen's claims, Exxon reached a $20-million settlement with Alaska native groups who are parties to the same suit. The groups said the spill damaged their hunting and fishing grounds.

The oil company is also defending itself against similar charges in state court, where six Alaska native groups have filed suit seeking roughly $100 million.

Exxon says it has paid about $3.5 billion so far in cleanup costs and government fines.

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Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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