Monday, February 18, 2008

Cornell's LII Bulletin Previews SCOTUS Argument in Maritime Punitive Damages Case


Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (07-219)
Oral argument: Feb. 27, 2008

In 1989 the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, off the Alaska coast, spilling millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. In the years following the spill, Exxon would pay millions of dollars in private claims and over a billion dollars to settle government suits under environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act ("CWA"). An additional class action suit by private parties sought compensatory damages for economic harm, as well as punitive damages (a civil penalty for particularly egregious conduct). In the final suit, an Alaska district court awarded roughly $20 million in compensatory damages against Exxon—and $5 billion in punitive damages. The Ninth Circuit eventually reduced the punitive damages award to $2.5 billion but upheld the decision to award such damages. Exxon now asks the United States Supreme Court to strike down the award of punitive damages or reduce its amount. In addressing Exxon's petition, the Court must set maritime law standards for punitive damage awards against a ship's owner for acts of the ship's master. The Court will also consider whether Congress meant penalties under the CWA to be the full punishment for a spill, excluding punitive damages under maritime law.



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