Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Private Matter

Yesterday the Supreme Court began hearing arguments about the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- about whether or not punitive damages of $2.5 billion dollars should be dismissed.

Some notes:

Here is the opening of the "Argument Preview" from the Supreme Court website:

"Exxon Shipping Co., et al., v. Baker, et al., is known – and will always be known popularly – as a case about one of history’s most destructive oil spills. The case is also steeped in maritime lore, because the tanker ship carrying the oil hit bottom on Alaska’s Bligh Island Reef, named for Captain William Bligh, a central figure in the story of the mutiny on The Bounty. But this controversy takes its place on the Supreme Court’s docket as a test of maritime law that reaches back to an 1818 Supreme Court decision charmingly titled The Amiable Nancy. The core issue is whether maritime law allows any punitive damages again a ship owner/operator for an oil spill such as this one and, if so, how high such a damage award may legally go."

Nina Totenberg, the Supreme Court reporter for NPR, is one of my heroes -- her calm and delineated way of explaining the interchanges in the institution are forever in my head when I think about the court at all. Thank you, Nina.

Samuel Alito is sitting out of this case. He owns stocks in Exxon. Why on earth are our Supreme Court Justices allowed to own stock? Any stock! Many journalists aren't allowed to own stock for fear of conflicts. It's the supreme court, for crying out loud. Pay them well -- really well; it's a big job, and they never do anything again -- but make them get RID of their portfolios! Rid.

One issue is that Exxon knew that Hazelwood, a self-admitted alcoholic, had fallen off the wagon when he assumed the helm of the Valdez.

From the website corporate statement:
"ExxonMobil has an unwavering commitment to high ethical standards, operations integrity and flawless execution. This is embedded in our company culture and implemented through our management systems. Our Standards of Business Conduct form the foundation for this commitment, with 16 corporate policies in addition to the company-wide expectations for open-door communication."

Exxon says that they should not be subject to punitive damages because they were not seeking to make big profits from their action. This is interesting to me. Because they were not looking to profit specifically from keeping Hazelwood, a known alcoholic, from captaining the Valdez, they should not be subject to punishment.

Here's the Wikipedia entry for the term "Public Trust." (More hypocrisy on my part!)

"The concept of the public trust relates back to the origins of democratic government, and its seminal idea that; within the public, lies the true power and future of a society, therefore, whatever trust the public places in its officials must be respected.

"One of the reasons why bribery is regarded as a notorious evil is that it contributes to a culture of corruption in which public trust is eroded.

A famous example of the betrayal of public trust is in the story of Julius Ceasar, who was killed by Roman Senators who believed they had to act drastically to preserve the republic against his alleged monarchical ambitions. It is an interesting concept, nevertheless."

The blog of the American Constitution Society said this yesterday:

"Tort law must continue to perform the work of punishing and deterring misconduct that harms private interests. The applicable federal and state laws work together to provide comprehensive but not overlapping remedies for public and private harm. The Supreme Court should continue to recognize this important distinction and retain the plaintiffs’ longstanding rights to both compensatory and punitive damages."

This from the Supreme Court Blog background:

"At seven minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez, loaded with oil and steaming out of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, ran aground on Bligh Reef after missing a turn that would have allowed it to sail safely on out to sea. The ship was owned by a subsidiary of the oil company, Exxon Mobil, and its captain at the time was an Exxon employee, Joseph Hazelwood. The record of the case is filled with arguments and counter-arguments about whether Hazelwood was drunk, about what Exxon knew about that, and just how the turn was missed while Hazelwood was away from the bridge (in violation of company rules). There is no dispute about the first result of the grounding: With the reef punching a hole in the Valdez’s hull, some 11 million gallons of its cargo – equal to about 258,000 barrels – spilled into the Sound, and wind and water spread it over a 600-mile area in the midst of a productive fishery area."

This from a 1994 article from The Anchorage Daily News:

ANCHORAGE- For the first time since he radioed that the Exxon Valdez had "fetched up hard aground" on Bligh Reef five years ago, Capt. JoeHazelwood on Tuesday began his public reckoning of his role in the disaster and of his bouts with alcohol. Speaking as one of the first witnesses called by the attorneys suing him and Exxon in U.S. District Court,Hazelwood described the two-faced life he led during the years leading up to the spill: drinking at sea, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous at home.

In slow, deliberate speech, Hazelwood said many Exxon officials knew he was drinking, but had they asked for details or probed, "I probably would have slammed the door in their face."

"I thought it was a private matter," he said.

I've mentioned before that I am teaching Frankenstein right now -- I still think it's fascinating -- all the issues of responsibility and consequence...

Yesterday, a student for whom I have a big soft spot wrote a free write correlating her own battles with alcoholism with Frankenstein's -- I told her I was concerned that over identification could be problematic in her instance -- taking too much responsibility could work against her ability to keep her life in perspective...

There aren't that many of us with the capacity to commit deep crimes against nature through our own actions and inactions -- to create such catastrophic results in our environments...

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