19 years, 3 weeks' lost profits, and a slap at victims by the Supreme Court?
Observers of this week's argument before the U.S. Supreme Court over the massive oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez warned that a majority of the Justices appeared willing to further reduce the punitive damage award against Exxon.
It has been 19 years since the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil along the coast of Alaska, devastating 1200 miles of coastline, killing millions of marine animals and wildfowl, ruining fisheries, tourism and the lives and economic well-being of thousands of Alaskans. Some 33,000 residents were allowed to join in a class action suit against Exxon, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
Some states allow punitive damages in an effort to discourage institutionalized negligence or wanton conduct. Michigan allows punitive damages in only a handful of circumstances involving discrete illegal acts such as cutting timber from a neighbor's property. The infamous McDonald's hot coffee case is one example of when punitives are allowed in other states: after 300-some burn complaints over McDonald's coffee being served 10 degrees hotter than the industry norm, the jury awarded a grandmother who suffered 2d and 3d degree burns over her abdomen and vagina one week's worth of coffee profits----and created an uproar.
Perhaps because the captain of the Valdez was drunk at the time his ship ran aground, and there were strong proofs of institutionalized negligence by Exxon, the Plaintiffs won a substantial verdict years ago. Exxon immediately appealed and slowed the wheels of justice to a crawl. First, the award of punitive damages was cut in half--to a total that equaled only three weeks' profits for Exxon. Exxon was at war, though, and out to punish someone back: it continued to appeal and 19 years later, it looks as though they may save that 3 weeks of profits, as well.
Welcome to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bush's Justices: you have completed the transition of the Court to an activist, anti-consumer entity.