Punitive Damages Class Action Defense Cases–Exxon v. Baker: Supreme Court Reduces Class Action Punitive Award In Exxon Valdez Case Holding Punitive Damages Under Federal Maritime Law Should Be Limited To Amount Of Compensatory Damages
$2.5 Billion Punitive Damage Award in Class Action Against Exxon Arising out of Valdez Oil Spill Excessive because Considerations of Predictability Warranted 1:1 Ratio Cap on Punitive Damages Awarded under Federal Maritime Law Supreme Court Holds, Resulting in Reduction of Class Action Punitive Damage Award to $500 Million and, as Modified, Class Action Judgment Affirmed Bringing end to 20-year Lawsuit
Almost 20 years ago, in March 1989, Exxon’s supertanker, the Valdez, ran aground off the coast of Alaska and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Plaintiffs, commercial fishermen and Native Alaskans, filed a class action against Exxon seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. ___ (June 25, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1-2]. (More accurately, various individual civil cases were consolidated into one lawsuit against Exxon and others, and at Exxon’s request the federal court “certified a mandatory class of all plaintiffs seeking punitive damages, whose number topped 32,000.” Id., at 5.) Exxon stipulated to its negligence and a jury trial was held to determine compensatory damages and fix punitive damages, id. The jury awarded plaintiffs $5 billion in punitive damages against Exxon. Id., at 7. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment but reduced the punitive damage award to $2.5 billion, id. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address three questions of maritime law: “whether a shipowner may be liable for punitive damages without acquiescence in the actions causing harm, whether punitive damages have been barred implicitly by federal statutory law making no provision for them, and whether the award of $2.5 billion in this case is greater than maritime law should allow in the circumstances.” Id., at 1. The High Court held that federal law did not preclude an award of punitive damages against Exxon, but that the award “should be limited to an amount equal to compensatory damages.” Id. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the class action. Id., at 7. The Court held that the punitive damages awarded in the class action should not have exceeded the compensatory damage award and, accordingly, must be reduced to $500 million.
We do not here recount the factual history of the Valdez oil spill, or the evidence presented concerning Exxon’s culpability in allowing its employee, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, to serve as captain of the Valdez on the fateful night. That history may be found at pages 2 to 4 of the Court’s opinion. Exxon spent approximately $2.1 billion to clean up the oil spill. Exxon Shipping, at 4. The federal government brought criminal charges against Exxon for violating several federal laws; Exxon pleaded guilty to violating various federal laws and ultimately paid a $25 million fine and $100 million in restitution. Id., at 4-5. The federal government also filed a civil action against Exxon, along with the State of Alaska, and obtained a consent decree requiring Exxon to pay another $900 million toward restoring natural resources. Id., at 5. Exxon additionally paid approximately $300 million to settle claims with fishermen, property owners and others. Id.