Supreme Court agrees Exxon should pay $5 billion

By LAURIE ASSEO

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused to free Exxon Mobil Corp. from having to pay $5 billion in damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the nation’s worst ever.

The nation’s highest court, acting without comment today, let stand the award stemming from the tanker spill that polluted more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, killed tens of thousands of birds and marine mammals and disrupted fishing.

The oil company still has a variety of other appeals pending, and the high court ruling does not obligate the company to pay anything right away, said company spokesman Tom Cirigliano.

In this appeal, lawyers for Exxon Mobil had urged the justices to throw out the punitive-damages award on grounds of irregularities during jury deliberations.

"We’re not even close," to the end of the case, Cirigliano said. "This doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on us having to pay the $5 billion."

The Exxon order was among dozens released by the court on the first day of its new term. Among the highlights:

_The court refused to block the marketing of a generic chewing gum to help smokers give up cigarettes, rejecting an appeal in which the manufacturer of Nicorette gum said the marketing violated its copyright.

_It turned aside the argument of a Kansas youth suspended from school for three days after he drew a picture of a Confederate flag. Attorneys for seventh-grader T.J. West had maintained that the disciplinary action violated his constitutionally protected free-speech rights.

_The court refused to throw out a lawsuit in which actors George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, who played endearing barflies in the "Cheers" television show, say two robots stole their old act.

_It refused to allow some 30 members of Congress to sue President Clinton for ordering the military to join last year’s NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The lawmakers had argued that Clinton violated the War Powers Act of 1973.

_The high court refused to reinstate the California fraud convictions of financier Charles Keating, who became a symbol of the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s.

_The court rejected the appeal of a married couple who say they were sexually harassed at work by the same supervisor, letting stand a ruling that said a key federal law does not apply to bisexuals who harass others.

In one of several challenges to the $5 billion award imposed by a federal jury in 1994, Exxon Mobil attacked the behavior of Don Warrick, a court bailiff who escorted the jury and served food to its members during five months of trial and deliberations in Anchorage.

Warrick admitted that in a conversation with one of the Exxon Valdez trial jurors he pulled out his gun and removed one of its bullets before saying another juror — one holding out against making a punitive-damages award — should be put "out of her misery."

Warrick, who said he was only joking, was fired. He died in 1996.

But U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland refused to order a new punitive-damages trial, ruling that the holdout juror had not known during the deliberations about Warrick’s comment.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling last March, calling the bailiff’s comment to a juror "a strikingly tasteless joke" that targeted a juror who had been conspicuously emotional. But it said the comment did not require "a rebuttable presumption of prejudice" because it was not aimed at the holdout juror.

In the appeal acted on today, Exxon Mobil’s lawyers argued that such a presumption should exist.

The Exxon Valdez hit a charted reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of Alaska crude oil.

The case is Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Baker, 00-90.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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