As Exxon Valdez checks near, fishermen resigned to disappointment

After a nearly 20-year wait, thousands of commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs are on the brink of collecting punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

The checks won't be anything like the blockbuster payments many hoped for after a federal jury awarded them $5 billion -- an amount the U.S. Supreme Court this summer cut by 90 percent.

Still, dozens of fishermen can expect checks for more than $100,000. And a few will range up to around $400,000.

As soon as today, federal Judge H. Russel Holland could clear the way for the payments, assuming he rejects a late effort from one plaintiff to re-jigger the complex plan for dividing the money.

The payout would mark the beginning of the end of an epic court case that has caused unprecedented angst among Alaskans.

But the payments are not seen as a victory among fishermen, who are still mad about the oil spill as well as the long struggle to win punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp.

"It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," said William Yankee, a Prince William Sound salmon fisherman who's on the list for nearly $58,000.

Yankee said fishermen would have preferred to avoid the trauma of the oil spill rather than collect punitive damages, which he said won't come close to making them whole.

Lawyers handling the distribution of money have filed long lists of fishermen and other plaintiffs, with a dollar figure next to each name. Quite a few entries begin with the words "Estate of..." signifying a person who died waiting for the massive class action to conclude.

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