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Exxon Claims Oil Spill Jury Tainted

Courts: Firm, fighting $5.3-billion verdict, relies on claims of one juror that she felt threatened by a gun-wielding bailiff and fellow panelists.

May 02, 1999|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — A federal appeals court will hear arguments Monday that the jury that awarded more than $5 billion in damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spill was tainted by a bailiff who pulled out his gun and joked about putting a holdout juror "out of her misery."

The same juror, who attempted suicide three weeks after the verdict, alleged she was threatened by other jurors and by the bailiff, who was forced to resign from the U.S. Marshals Service after admitting he had offered his gun and a bullet to one of the jurors and had improperly socialized with the jury.

The appeal sheds light on the deliberations that produced the largest punitive damage award in U.S. history, revealing a jury plagued by loud arguments, tearful outbursts and a nagging fear that it was unequipped to resolve the complex economic and scientific dilemmas arising from the disastrous 1989 tanker accident that spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Two jurors found dead fish on their lawns after the August 1994 award of $287 million in compensatory damages, court papers show. Another juror suffered angina pains and got a doctor's letter recommending she be excused from the tense deliberations.

The oral arguments are scheduled before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the stakes for Exxon are high. The firm is seeking to overturn a total of $5.3 billion in compensatory and punitive damages due to be paid to tens of thousands of fishermen, landowners, business owners and tribal natives who live and work around Prince William Sound.

The verdict "was tainted by coercion of the jury on the part of a rogue court security officer," Exxon lawyers argued in their appeal, which challenges the verdict on a variety of legal grounds.

"He intruded into the jury's deliberative process, brandished firearms at jurors, took sides in the deliberations and committed perjury to conceal his misconduct," the firm's lawyers contend.

Bailiff's Actions Dismissed as Harmless

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland, the trial judge in Anchorage, found the bailiff's actions had no effect on the deliberations and said he did not find juror Rita Wilson to be credible when she raised allegations about a series of threats supposedly lodged against her when she held out against awarding punitive damages.

The chief lawyer for the plaintiffs, Brian O'Neill, dismissed the bailiff's actions as a harmless joke and pointed out that Wilson, a former Anchorage school library aide, did not claim she was threatened until long after the trial.

"She claimed . . . she received 30 to 50 other death threats after the trial, that persons in automobiles were photographing her and might shoot her, that eight or nine jurors wanted her dead, including cutting her up in little pieces and flushing her down the toilet, raping her," O'Neill said of Wilson's testimony in Holland's chambers.

"The judge didn't believe her, and that's a decision that the judge is supposed to make," O'Neill said. "Otherwise, every time we had a juror who . . . wanted to come back and take a sideswipe at the other jurors, we'd never have finality."

In extensive interviews with The Times, jurors denied Wilson was ever threatened but admitted they had sought to have her removed from the case after she refused to consider awarding punitive damages, repeatedly ran crying from the room and demonstrated what they saw as emotional instability.

"I am confident in the process, that it worked, and that all of us . . . gave it our best judgment," foreman Kenneth Murray said. "As far as the allegations [about threats] that she made later, like the judge said: I think she believes what she believes, and I don't believe any of the rest of us believe any of it."

Juror Doug Graham said he is convinced that Wilson concurred with the $5-billion punitive damage award. "At that moment, yes," he said. "There were people in the room that were asking her, 'Are you sure?' And she was."

It was Graham who told the court that he had been approached midway through the deliberations by bailiff Don Warrick, whom several of the jurors believed to be prying or a potential "plant."

Warrick had shown up by invitation at a weekend barbecue given by one of the jurors and went to the home of another juror to talk about a mutual interest in gold mining, all while deliberations were ongoing.

Although the bailiff did not discuss the Valdez case, a Marshals Service deputy who investigated the case told the court he considered it potentially conduct of "a criminal nature" and added: "It is very, very out of character for anybody that is remotely connected to the U.S. marshals office to associate with jury members. . . . I can't get into my mind why this guy did this."

Several jurors said they felt uncomfortable about the number of questions Warrick was asking. Graham told the court that he went out of his way to avoid the bailiff, who on one occasion, Graham said, flagged him over and began talking about Wilson.

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