Finally, after more than 19 years, the Supreme Court has put to rest litigation over punitive damages in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. As a fisherman involved in the litigation, I have dedicated one-third of my life to observation of this "David vs. Goliath" conflict.
Naturally, since I was an oil-damaged fisherman who lost an entire season of salmon fishing - who waded with hip boots in knee-deep oily mousse along pristine Alaska shoreline while picking up bird carcasses with a stick; who observed firsthand the comedy of horrors as Exxon hired the VECO Corporation to waste millions in a pathetically ineffective response; who has replayed a thousand times in my mind the voice of the drunk Joe Hazelwood slurring into the microphone his report to the Coast Guard: "We have fetched up hard aground on Bligh Reef ... ." - I expected this case to be a no-brainer, and that the U.S. justice system would prevail on behalf of the little guy.
Little did I know in 1989 that I would be sitting at a keyboard nearly 20 years later reflecting on the failures of the U.S. justice system. Little did I know that, as the years went by and I attended funerals of many of my fishermen friends who passed away without seeing closure to this agony, that I would grow to be so angry and disheartened by the success that Exxon has had with their methodical manipulation of the justice system.
Way back in 1989, it was rumored that Lee Raymond, the CEO of Exxon at that time, was saying privately that he would dedicate every resource of the corporation to making sure that fishermen never received a dime in compensation.
I find it interesting to note that Raymond's severance package when he retired from Exxon some years ago was about $400 million. Now, nearly 33,000 plaintiffs must split an amount only slightly higher than that!
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory with devastating cost to the victor. The recent Supreme Court decision for oil-damaged fishermen certainly meets this description. Fishermen/plaintiffs have lost 20 percent of our members while this conflict has been waged from one courthouse to the next. Many of us have been converted from participating patriots to grouchy skeptics.
We have watched Exxon contribute heavily to campaigns with what we suspect was part of their strategy to manipulate the system and ultimately tilt the Supreme Court to the right far enough to achieve their Machiavellian goal of preventing a payout to fishermen.
Some fisheries in Alaska never truly recovered after 1989. You can still find oil buried on beaches. Fishermen have been "on hold" financially with regard to retirement planning, and have forgone scores of unquantifiable opportunities while Exxon has played the court system to its own end.
When my fishing season was canceled in 1989 due to the oil spill, my oldest daughter could not understand why I had to break my promise to take her out on my boat with me as a deckhand. No amount of money can compensate for the destruction to the environment. No amount of money can ever heal that broken promise, or dry the tears of 20 years shed by fishermen, Alaskans and the world.
Fisherman Frank Mullen lives in Homer, Alaska.
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