Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Drilling for gold

The U.S. Supreme Court could be about to neuter the great equalizer in this country's legal system -- punitive damages. Civil trial juries have traditionally had great leeway in determining if a defendant's conduct was so reprehensible as to deserve a monetary penalty on the principle of the more money the defendant has, the larger the penalty needed to deter unlawful conduct. But after years of appellate court decisions chipping away at that principle, the Roberts court could be sculpting with a mallet. Today, the court agreed to decide if Exxon Mobil will have to pay $2.5 billion in punitive damages for the spill of 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound in 1989. Remember the spoiled beaches, the dead and dying wildlife, the devastated fishing industry. Turns out the captain of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker was a drunk and Exxon knew it. Sounds like the perfect time for a damage award that will get the multibillion-dollar multinational corporation's attention, and a jury delivered it. But now, the Supreme Court with its new conservative justices could emasculate one of the most-cherished rights of our legal system -- the power to sue and get compensated for injuries.


jerseycindy said...

The fact that the court refused to review a request by the plaintiffs to reinstate the original $5 billion award is a good indication of how they'll decide this case. AFAIC, the $2.5 billion is nothing. If Exxon Mobil was seized and liquidated it wouldn't be enough to compenste for the damage that they have caused.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the comment from JerseyCindy, it actually would compensate, at least in the eyes of the law, for the financial cost of the damage.