Story last updated at 4:28 p.m. Thursday, June 20, 2002

Latest Exxon motion leaves plaintiffs waiting
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

In the pingpong legal battle over punitive damages, fishermen and others hoping for a check will have to continue waiting.

ExxonMobil Corp., in an Anchorage federal court last week, filed a motion to reduce damages to $25 million.

In 1994, an Anchorage jury awarded $5 billion to the 15,000 plaintiffs in the case. But the appeals process has dragged out the class-action suit for nearly a decade.

"Just look at all the (plaintiffs) who've died since this thing happened," said Robert Purpura, who's been setting gillnets since well before the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Last November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that $5 billion was excessive and sent the matter back to the Anchorage court.

"Am I happy that I'm not getting the $5 billion? No. But it's not something I've been banking on," Purpura said.

Exxon now argues that the punitive damages amount should be the same as the fine imposed by the government after the 1989 spill - $25 million.

By low-balling, Exxon is simply trying to push the case back to 9th Circuit Court, said David Oesting of Davis, Wright and Tremaine of Anchorage, lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

"It makes for an interesting smokescreen," Oesting said. "It's terribly frustrating when people can cause the system to be manipulated like that."

The plaintiffs have until July 17 to file a response, Oesting said. Then Exxon has 10 days to counter file.

Meanwhile, the fishermen, Native Alaskans and communities named in the suit wait.

Still, Purpura admits, with salmon prices so low, a check would be nice. He figures someday, he'll get something.

"It's like fishing," Purpura said. "You go out and you set your gear and you hope for the best."