The U.S. Supreme Court has issued an opinion reducing the amount of the award of punitive damages against Exxon Mobil Corp. related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill – from $2.5 billion to just $507 million, an amount equal to the compensatory damages in the case. Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 2008 WL 2511219 (U.S., June 25, 2008).

In a 5-3 decision, the Court found that a 1-to-1 ratio of compensatory to punitive damages was appropriate in the case, in which more than 32,000 fishermen and Alaska native citizens sought remedies after the tanker accident spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. At Phase I of the trial, the jury found Exxon and the ship’s Captain Hazelwood reckless (and thus potentially liable for punitive damages) under instructions providing that a corporation is responsible for the reckless acts of employees acting in a managerial capacity in the scope of their employment. In Phase II, the jury awarded compensatory damages to some of the plaintiffs; others had settled their compensatory claims. In Phase III, the jury awarded $5,000 in punitive damages against Hazelwood and $5 billion against Exxon. The punitive issue has yo-yoed between the District Court and the Ninth Circuit, which eventually in December 2006, reduced the award to $2.5 billion, saying ExxonMobil’s conduct was not intentional and that the rate of punitive damages to actual economic harm exceeded what was appropriate under recent Supreme Court precedent.

Supreme Court View

The Court addressed several issues:

1. Because the Court was equally divided on whether maritime law allows corporate liability for punitive damages based on the acts of managerial agents, it left the Ninth Circuit’s opinion undisturbed in this respect (the Ninth Circuit found that ExxonMobil was not exempt from punitive damages).

2. The Clean Water Act’s water pollution penalties do not preempt punitive-damages awards in maritime spill cases. Nothing in the statute points to that result, and the Court had rejected similar attempts to sever remedies from their causes of action. There is no clear indication of  congressional intent to occupy the entire field of pollution remedies, nor is it likely that punitive damages for private harms will have any frustrating effect on the CWA’s remedial scheme.

3. The punitive damages award against Exxon was excessive as a matter of maritime common law. In the circumstances of this case, the award should be limited to an amount equal to compensatory damages.

And it is this last point likely of most interest to readers of MassTortDefense. Since maritime
law falls under federal jurisdiction, the Court served as a common law court in the case. Rather than the constitutional due process analysis seen in recent punitive damages decisions, see, e.g., State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, the approach was one of fashioning federal common law, giving observers, perhaps, some insight into the Court’s views of punitive generally.

The Court observed that one of the real problems with punitive damages is the stark unpredictability of punitive awards. Courts ought to be concerned with fairness and consistency, and the available punitive damages data suggest that the spread between high and low individual awards is unacceptably large. The spread in state civil trials is especially great, and the outlier cases subject defendants to punitive damages that dwarf the corresponding compensatories. These ranges might be acceptable if they resulted from honest efforts to reach a generally accepted optimal level of penalty and deterrence in specific cases involving a wide range of circumstances, but evidence suggests that is not the case.

The unpredictability of high punitive awards is in tension with their punitive function because of the implication of unfairness that an eccentrically high punitive verdict carries. A penalty should be reasonably predictable in its severity, so that even Justice Holmes’s proverbial “bad man” can look ahead with some ability to know what the stakes are in choosing one course of action or another. And a penalty scheme ought to threaten defendants with a fair probability of suffering in like degree for like damage. Justice Souter thus argued that reducing punitive damages actually will better allow them to achieve their goal of acting as a deterrent and a punishment – by making them more predictable.

The Court was skeptical that verbal formulations are adequate insurance against unpredictable outlier punitive awards, and the option of setting a hard-dollar punitive cap was rejected because there is no “standard” tort or contract injury, making it difficult to settle upon a particular dollar figure that would be appropriate across the board. The most promising alternative was to peg punitive awards to compensatory damages using a ratio. This is the approach used in many states and in analogous federal statutes allowing multiple damages.

Based on studies of thousands of cases as to what punitive awards were appropriate in circumstances from the most blameworthy down to the least blameworthy conduct, from malice and avarice to recklessness to gross negligence, compensatory award exceed the punitive award in most cases. Accordingly, the Court found that a 1:1 ratio is a fair upper limit in maritime cases such as this.

Though the decision technically dealt only with maritime liability, some are hailing it as a reasonable way to assess punitive damages generally, particularly on a company that did not intentionally harm the environment. Time will tell whether the decision could have an effect far beyond federal maritime law, cabining unpredictable punitive damages (the way Metro-North Commuter R. Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424 (1997) impacted medical monitoring claims in the states).