March 31, 2011 Articles

BP, Exxon Valdez, and Class-Wide Punitive Damages

Exxon Valdez offers important lessons for the BP litigation, particularly in regard to class-action practice and procedure.

By Nimesh R. Desai

Witnesses of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound could not have imagined a greater disaster. After its intoxicated captain led the oil supertanker into the Sound’s Bligh Reef, the massive ship released approximately 11 million gallons (350,000 barrels) of crude oil. Eventually, more than 1,300 miles of coastline were affected, much of it ecologically sensitive and critical to countless animal species. Commercial fisheries operating in the area were devastated by the contamination, and the impact rippled through the coastal economy, affecting everyone from food processing workers to municipal governments, from cannery workers to area businesses reliant on the fishing economy.

A short 20 years later, history has repeated itself on a grander scale. BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolded over 87 days, making the term “spill” seem wholly inadequate. In that time, nearly 160 million gallons (5 million barrels) of oil spewed into the Gulf from the breached undersea well. Skimming efforts captured 800,000 barrels of oil, more than were ever released into Prince William Sound. Once again, ecologically sensitive and commercially valuable coastline is devastated, with the economic aftershocks only beginning to reverberate through the Gulf states.

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