High court cuts Exxon Valdez damages

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday cut the $2.5 billion in punitive damages awarded in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The court reduced the award to $507.5 million, dashing the hopes of more than 32,000 fishermen and Alaska Natives who have been waiting nearly 20 years to hear whether Exxon Mobil Corp. must pay billions in punitive damages for its role in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The original multibillion-dollar punitive damages had been awarded as punishment for Exxon's role in spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.

Five justices signed the majority opinion; three dissented with parts of it. The court held that punitive damages should be no more than compensatory damages. That standard applies only to maritime law.

”The punitive damages award against Exxon was excessive as a matter of maritime common law,“ Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion. ”In the circumstances of this case, the award should be limited to an amount equal to compensatory damages.“

”I prefer to think of it as five of the justices on the Supreme Court going out of their way to help big business,“ said Brian O'Neill, one of the main attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Rex Tillerson, Exxon's chairman and chief executive officer, issued a short statement saying that the company continues to regret the accident. He didn't specifically address the Supreme Court decision.

”We know this has been a very difficult time for everyone involved,“ Tillerson said.