Personal Injury

Activities | Related Article: Earth Force

Tracking Oil Spills around the World (and the Web)

Web Quest

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. The ship spilt millions of gallons of crude oil. You can see photos of the spill and the aftermath.

Crude Oil

Visit the River Media website. [You may need to explore the site to answer all the questions below.]

  • What substances are mixed together in crude oil?
  • Are all crude oils the same?
  • Does crude oil mix with water?
  • What kinds of damage do crude oil spills cause?

The Accident

Read pages 1-3 of the decision (.pdf) in the case of In re Exxon Valdez. [Note this is a decision relating only to the amount of punitive damages Exxon paid to the class of plaintiffs injured by the spill; you will only read this extract for the purposes of finding out what caused the Exxon accident.]

  • What happened the night of March 24, 1989?
  • Who, if anyone, was to blame?

The Clean Up

Visit the website of the town of Valdez and answer the following questions:

  • How many gallons of oil were spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster?
  • Where did the spilled oil go?
  • What techniques did cleanup crews use to clean up oil? (See more information on clean-up techniques.)

The Legal Issues

There have been several lawsuits since the Exxon Valdez disaster. Visit Exxon Valdez Disaster and Class Action Lawsuit (on Lieff Cabraser website) and answer the following questions:

  • What amount of damages did the Anchorage jury award to plaintiffs in the 1994 decision?
  • Who were the plaintiffs in that case?
  • Did Exxon appeal the punitive damages award?


Damages is money awarded by a court. Usually a defendant is ordered to pay damages to a plaintiff.

Compensatory damages is money awarded by a court to compensate a plaintiff for a loss or injury he or she suffered.

Punitive damages are damages intended to punish the defendant and to discourage the conduct of the type the defendant engaged in.

Read the story at

  • Have plaintiffs in the 1994 case received any punitive damages from Exxon?
  • Have plaintiffs received any other money from Exxon?

Read the account of the oral arguments at

  • According to this story, why have there been so many appeals on the issue of punitive damages in the Exxon case?

Visit the Supreme Court website and read the Supreme Court opinion by Justice Kennedy in the case of State Farm Mutual Automobile Association co. v. Campbell Et Al.

  • Read page 5 of the judgment. According to the Court, what different purposes are served by compensatory and punitive damages?
  • On page 7, the Court refers to three "guideposts" courts should apply in deciding what level of punitive damages to award. List those three guideposts.
  • In part III of the judgment (which starts on page 8), the court applies the three guideposts to the facts of this case. What conclusion does the Court reach (page 18-19)?

Visit the website of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

  • Has the Ninth Circuit published an opinion on the Exxon case? If so, did the Court specify the amount of punitive damages Exxon should pay? How did it calculate the damages Exxon owed? Do you agree with the Court's decision?
  • If the Court has not yet published an opinion, explain in two sentences what decision you think the Court should make, and why.

Additional Resources

Read about other oil spills, and find out about recent oil spills, at the River Media website.

Chevron website on the history of crude oil

MSN Encarta website on Petroleum

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