June 25, 2008

Plaintiffs React to Exxon Decision

ANCHORAGE, Alaska _ Reactions from Alaska plaintiffs to the Supreme Court's Exxon decision Wednesday morning ranged from disappointment to cynical outrage _ mixed for some, with a tinge of relief that a two-decade ordeal may finally have come to an end.

"It kind of sends the message that big corporations that have the right money and political power can throw safety and responsibility to the wind," said Mark Witteveen, a former Kodiak fisherman turned fisheries biologist. "I mean, $500 million for Exxon? That's not even a blip on their radar."

"This is a total slap in the face," said Andy Wills of Homer, a former Prince William Sound salmon and herring fisherman. "It just shows how corrupt our country has become. This won't even pay off a credit card."

The punitive damage limit set by the Supreme Court, including interest, should pay out just under $1 billion when the paperwork is settled in the coming months. For commercial fishermen with the biggest shares, that could add up to $100,000 apiece or more.

But it's far shy of the life-changing amounts promised by the original $5 billion jury award in 1994. That award, 10 times the amount approved Wednesday by the Supreme Court, became the stuff of daydreams, of big new boats and retirement homes in Mexico.

"Everybody has just got to shift gears again," said Frank Mullen, a Cook Inlet driftnet fisherman who also works as a financial planner. He said he got constant calls Wednesday morning.

"For a lot of people, I'm recommending they zero out their credit card balance and get rid of high-interest debt, then fund their IRAs to the max," Mullen said. "Many fishermen who hoped to retire soon because of the graying of the fleet are going to have to keep fishing and hope the price of fish is high."

Dave Kubiak of Kodiak, a former English teacher turned commercial fisherman, said he was disappointed but not surprised at the Supreme Court decision. He thinks big business influenced the court.

"They are also part of owned-and-operated corporate America," he said.

"It's 'The Grapes of Wrath' all over again. Steinbeck was a visionary with that. That story ... is as true now as it was in the 1930s. There's no difference."

Limiting punitive damages this way sets a bad precedent, said Mary Jacobs of Kodiak, one of relatively few females commercial fishing in 1989.

"This is just saying that the oil companies aren't accountable for doing really bad stuff," she said. "Punitive damages is what keeps some businesses in line from taking risks, and the cost of operations just got less."

Some plaintiffs related the Exxon spill to a current big issue for commercial fishing, the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay.

"What makes me worried on the Pebble mine, it makes it pretty wide open that these guys can pollute," said Dan Winn of Homer, a former Cook Inlet drifter.

Lloyd Miller, a lawyer for Native subsistence villages who were part of the lawsuit, said he was shocked that the justices would not use the term "malicious" to describe Exxon's tolerance of an alcoholic culture in its shipping arm. The company showed disregard for small villages that suffered lasting devastation to their subsistence, he said.

"I think it's a tragedy," Miller said. "Justice has not been done."

Gov. Sarah Palin said she is extremely disappointed with the decision, saying the court "gutted the jury's decision on punitive damages" and undercut one of the principal deterrents for marine shipping accidents in Alaska.

"It is tragic that so many Alaska fishermen and their families have had their lives put on hold waiting for this decision," Palin said. "My heart goes out to those affected, especially the families of the thousands of Alaskans who passed away while waiting for justice."

Palin's Fish and Game commissioner, Denby Lloyd, said the harmful effects of the spill are still being felt in Prince William Sound.

Republican state Sen. Tom Wagoner was a plaintiff as a former Cook Inlet driftboat fisherman. He said the case speaks poorly for the American justice system: 20 years to resolve what one lawyer described to him as "just a drunk driving case."

"I was telling a friend last week, I'm hoping to get enough for a new four-wheeler out of this," Wagoner said. He'll do a little better than that, he said, if the average payout for Inlet driftboats under the new figure extends to $150,000 or so.

Some fishermen said the amount of money to be deducted by their lawyers for expenses _ apart from the 22.4 percent legal fees already built into the distribution plan _ could be the subject of further debate.

Democratic state Rep. Les Gara said the Supreme Court decision was the result of 20 years of "Bush and Reagan appointees and a conservative movement that doesn't believe in corporate responsibility." Gara was a lawyer with the state Department of Law who worked on the state's lawsuit over the Exxon spill _ a case that was eventually settled for $1 billion. Most of that money went to a trustee council to buy habitat and fund scientific studies.

Alaska's Republican congressional delegation also expressed disappointment, saying the majority opinion added insult to injury for Alaskans.

"The good news," said Mullen, the fisherman and financial planner, "is they put us out of the misery of waiting."


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