Squabble threatens Exxon Valdez payouts

It took better than 19 years for Alaska commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs to win sizeable punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp. for the disastrous 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound.

Now that some money is in hand -- about $383 million -- it still could be months away from distribution.


Because of new legal squabbling among the plaintiffs about how to slice the pie.

It's the kind of situation Anchorage federal Judge H. Russel Holland warned about last year, when he told lawyers in the epic case it would be "an embarrassment" to allow infighting to delay a payout.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ordered the lower courts to award up to $507.5 million in punitive damages to nearly 33,000 commercial fishermen, cannery workers, land owners, Alaska Natives and others who claimed harm from the spill.

The judgment was a disappointment to the plaintiffs, far less than the $5 billion an Anchorage jury had awarded them in 1994.

Nevertheless, after the Supreme Court decision lawyers for the plaintiffs and Exxon worked out a partial settlement under which Exxon agreed to release $383 million.

The money is to be distributed under a complex allocation plan Holland approved in 1996.

But on Oct. 9, lawyers for Sea Hawk Seafoods Inc., a Seattle-based company that ran a fish-processing plant in Valdez, filed court papers that essentially say, "Whoa, wait a minute," on handing out the money.

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