• Hundreds of Kenai Peninsula fishermen may see ‘green’ Christmas from 20-year spill woes
By Naomi Klouda
In the next few weeks, fishermen harmed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill should start receiving their biggest settlement payout yet.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs have worked since December through a cumbersome process to distribute $383 million in punitive damages. Now the lawyers are preparing to distribute an even bigger sum – $470 million – in the next several weeks.
The money is interest Exxon Mobil Corp. paid July 1 on the punitive damages award the U.S. Supreme Court ordered last year.
“The $470 million that we hoped for in September was delayed because Judge (Russel) Holland had a number of different questions about the payout structure and the computation of interest,” said Frank Mullen, one of the plaintiffs and a local investment planner in Homer. “The money is not flowing yet, but in the next few weeks, the results of that $470 million distribution will begin to appear for fishermen on the clean claims list.”
Cities and entities other than individuals should also receive payments, including the City of Homer toward its $1.05 million portion.
The “clean claims” list includes those who have no liens or attachments. Mullen said the thousands of fishermen who died in the 20-year wait for legal resolutions to receive their payout would not be on the clean claims list either.
He added that the money has trickled out since last Christmas, and if plaintiffs were disappointed in the smaller-than-hoped-for sums in the first distribution, they might be happier with the second one.
“The settlement money is all going to eventually appear in fishermen’s accounts, but at different times,” Mullen explained. “This will be the largest payment. That’s the way this litigation has worked.”
Getting paid incrementally is yet another frustration to plaintiffs caught in the epic litigation. After this second batch, there likely will be a third and fourth, both smaller as the pot shrinks, Mullen said.
“This payment on round two should be the largest of three or four,” he said.
Part of the reason for the latest delay is the sheer complexity of calculating award settlements to each of the 33,000 claimants, Plaintiff Attorney David Oesting explained.
Each claimant is different, with a different settlement sum, which varied boat-to-boat and neighbor-to-neighbor. Lawyers have posted lists of claimants and the gross amounts they are due to receive, before deduction of attorney fees. The lists are available at http://exspill.com. Some fishermen are set to receive payments in excess of $100,000, with a few topping $200,000 and even $300,000. Many will see only several thousand.
“It was all a complex system based on the fishery you were in and the kind of fishing history you had in that particular area,” Mullen said.
While the exact number of area plaintiffs isn’t known, Mullen said he would speculate there are about 400-500 on the Kenai Peninsula.
The settlement could have a significant value and quite a positive affect on a local economy.
“When the first payment came out a year or so ago, many fishermen used those to pay bills and get out of debt,” Mullen said. “This second payout could possibly have a more beneficial effect on businesses and vendors of the Kenai Peninsula.”
The distribution of damages and interest marks the final stage of a historic legal battle that clanked through the federal courts for two decades, frustrating thousands of fishermen who felt their lives were changed irrevocably by the 1989 Exxon oil tanker‘s spilling of 11 million gallons of crude oil.
The U.S. Supreme Court on June 25, 2008, held that Exxon owed $507.5 million in punitive damages, a severe cut from the original $5 billion jury verdict in 1994. But that was not the final word, as Exxon appeared to have additional legal options to further contest the case in the lower courts.
Ultimately, however, lawyers for Exxon and the plaintiffs worked a partial settlement under which Exxon in August 2008 paid $383 million. The two sides continue to battle at the appeals court level over another chunk of money.
Exxon agreed to pay the $470 million in interest after the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled it was owed.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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