WASHINGTON — Exxon Mobil will argue before the Supreme Court that the $2.5 billion it was ordered to pay in punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez case — one of the largest awards ever against an American corporation — was in conflict with more than 200 years of maritime law.
Exxon filed a brief in the case Monday, arguing mostly that trial and appellate courts erred in blaming the company for the actions of its ship captain when the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound in 1989 and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.
The company also will argue that it has been punished enough and that the $2.5 billion is an excessive addition to the money the company has already paid, said Exxon spokesman Tony Cudmore.
"We don't believe the punitive damages are warranted in this case," he said. " The company has spent over $3.5 billion on compensation, cleanup payments, settlements and fines. It's a case about whether further punishment is warranted, and we do not believe that punitive damages are warranted in this case."
The Supreme Court announced in October that it will examine the fundamental legal issues in the case, which dates to the early 1990s. Exxon has been appealing since 1994, when an Anchorage jury returned a $5 billion punitive damages award against the company. Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco cut the award to $2.5 billion; Exxon appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
The company has long argued that it invested significant amounts of time, money and effort to address what happened to the environment, wildlife and Alaska residents after the oil spill.
The oil giant has had more than a dozen business groups and shipping associations file friend-of-the-court briefs objecting to the size of the verdict and how maritime law was applied in the case.
Now, the state of Alaska is expected to step in. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has asked the attorney general to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the fishermen and residents who first brought the suit.
The state will probably have the backing of the Alaska congressional delegation.
"It is in Alaska's interest to see justice concluded for the 33,000 Alaskan commercial fishermen, cannery workers, landowners and natives impacted by this horrendous spill," said Meredith Kenny, a spokeswoman for Rep. Don Young. "Representative Young has always been predisposed to signing on to the brief, and looks forward to reviewing a final copy of it to accomplish that action."
Sen. Ted Stevens is waiting to see the brief and won't commit to signing it until he has read it, said spokesman Aaron Saunders.
"He's obviously pleased that the attorney general is taking an interest, and is looking forward to reviewing the draft," Saunders said. "He's long supported ensuring that the victims of this bill get fairly compensated and are treated fairly in the process."