Exxon Valdez damages slashed by Supreme Court
As anticipated by experts who observed the oral argument before the Court, a bare majority overturned the punitive damage award against Texas-based Exxon arising out of the nearly twenty year-old fuel spill that dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The jury had awarded 5 billion dollars in punitive damages, and the Circuit Court of Appeals had already cut that number in half. Putting the latter number, 2.5 billion dollars, in perspective, it represents only a few weeks' profit for the oil giant and the spill fouled about 1100 miles of coastline, causing an environmental and commercial catastrophe for 33,000 residents who sued.
The five Justices who constituted a majority of the Court limited the punitive damages to 500 million dollars--the amount paid to compensate victims for economic losses. Commercial fisherman, landowners, businesses and local governments who suffered injury will receive, on average $15,000.00 for their trouble.
Michigan courts do not allow the jury to award punitive damages in most negligence cases, no matter how "reckless" the defendant's conduct.