CORDOVA, Alaska — Small commercial fishermen in this quiet port, among those pounded the hardest by the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill, aren't throwing any parties to celebrate the $5-billion verdict delivered by a federal jury Friday against Exxon.
Though most felt a weary triumph, and surprise, at the size of the punitive damages award, no one expects that much money to ever get here. Of more immediate concern was the job of unloading gear from their boats, as they ended their halibut and silver salmon seasons.
"I felt better that the jury judged Exxon's story and said, 'Yeah, you should pay, you were responsible,' " said Chris Nerison, as he gazed over the 1,000 boats in Cordova harbor during the drizzly Sunday afternoon.
But even Nerison, who fishes for salmon and herring, never expects anything close to $5 billion to wind up in plaintiffs' pockets. And other fishermen doubt they will get anything.
"I don't think so," said Thea Thomas, over a cup of coffee at The Reluctant Fisherman Inn. She fishes commercially for salmon and herring. At least she fished for herring until the fish failed to show up last year, cutting her income by one-third.
"Any upbeat mood is because we've had a pretty good year for the first time since the spill," she said, "not the judgment."
Thomas noted that the grinding pressure of poor fishing in various species, squeamishness over the quality of Alaskan fish--particularly in Japan--and other problems had plagued the fishing community year after year since the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, producing the biggest oil spill in North American history.
Families broke up, people committed suicide, parents couldn't send their kids to college, and the town's schools and library cut back personnel and hours as fishermen had trouble paying boat mortgages while the litigation ground on.
"The banks let them go for a few years," Thomas said. "Many lost their boats just in the last two years. It took a while for people to go broke."
"We've taken a series of economic hits," said Margy K. Johnson, an innkeeper and the mayor of Cordova. "One knocks you to your knees, a series renders you down and out."
The punitive damage award--or whatever survives Exxon's planned legal challenges--will be apportioned among all plaintiffs winning claims for actual damages from the spill, including about 10,000 fishermen and at least 4,000 others--from native villagers who lost subsistence harvests to such coastal businesses as fish hatcheries and processors.
Brian O'Neill, the Minneapolis lawyer who led the plaintiffs' legal team, estimated that fishermen will receive anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 each in punitive damages, with the payouts hinging on their former production. An estimated $1 billion will be divided up by the 82 law firms representing plaintiffs in the case.
The $5 billion in punitive damages is second in the U.S. courts only to the $10.5-billion award Pennzoil won in 1985 from Texaco Corp. The Exxon decision dwarfs what had been the biggest civil award in an environmental case--the $470 million that Union Carbide paid because of its role in the tragic chemical leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984 that killed 4,000 people.
O'Neill agreed with the skeptics in Cordova that the plaintiffs are unlikely to receive punitive damages anytime soon, though he expressed confidence the award eventually will arrive. "I guess we'll slug it out for another year or so before we get the appeals out of the way," he said.
"I feel relieved that I'm not going to go down in history as the world's biggest loser," added O'Neill, who has worked on the case since 1989. Given the vast environmental disaster in this case, he asked rhetorically, "How could you lose to Exxon?"
For its part, Exxon says it already has paid $3.5 billion in cleanup costs. Also, in a previous phase of the trial, jurors awarded commercial fishermen $287 million for actual damages to their livelihood. Exxon also agreed to pay 3,500 native Alaskans $20 million in place of food they normally would have caught in Alaskan waters.
Still to come in the Exxon case are smaller trials, including what U.S. District Judge Russel Holland is terming the "fourth phase" of this summer's three-part trial. This case, which will be held before a new jury, will include halibut fishermen, shrimp fishermen, lodge owners, helicopter leasing firms and others citing lost income after the spill.
Over in Valdez, the petroleum town where the Exxon Valdez took on its fateful cargo, most workers and contractors on this end of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline were glad to see Prince William Sound's hard-pressed commercial fishermen stand to be the potential beneficiaries of much of Friday's judgment.
Over the clamor of a local rock band Saturday night in The Pipeline Club--where according to court testimony, Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood went drinking hours before his tanker left port--there was sympathy for the fishermen as well.
"The oil field reaction is that they go along with the fishermen, that Exxon deserves everything they get. They're people too," said one contractor for Alyeska.
"We're all happy they got something; they haven't had anything, for years," said June Morgan, tending bar at the Club Bar, a fishermen's hangout near the Valdez harbor.
Parrish reported from Alaska and Silverstein reported from Los Angeles.