February 27, 2008

The Implications of the Exxon Valdez Oral Argument

We have reviewed the transcript of this morning's oral argument in the Exxon Valdez case and generally agree with the comments expressed elsewhere. Although the questions indicate a divided Court, Exxon seems unlikely to prevail on the argument that the actions of a ship captain cannot, as a matter of law, expose the ship owner to punitive damages. And Exxon is unlikely to prevail on the argument that the Clean Water Act prohibits the imposition of punitive damages in this case as a matter of law.

Nor does the Court seem likely to agree that Exxon is entitled to a new trial because the jury instructions erroneously allowed the jury to conclude that Captain Hazelwood had sufficient managerial authority to make Exxon liable for punitive damages. There is at least some possibility of a new trial on that issue, as the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Kennedy asked some hostile questions to plaintiffs' counsel about the jury instruction. Justice Thomas was silent as usual, but is probably in Scalia's camp on that issue. One more vote for Exxon could yield a new trial, but that vote may be hard to come by, especially since Justice Alito has recused himself.

The most likely outcome seems to be a split-decision affirming the plaintiffs' entitlement to punitive damages, but holding the amount of the award excessive under federal common law. If the Court adopts an excessiveness test as a matter of maritime law or federal common law, technically that test won't apply to many cases. But the Supreme Court's reasoning may influence many state court judges in applying the common law excessiveness standards that many state courts have developed

Perhaps more importantly, if the Supreme Court holds that the ratio in this case should only be two-to-one (as some of the justices' questions suggested), such a holding might lend additional weight to the court's prior holdings on the ratio issue in the cases involving the due process limits on punitive damages. (BMW v. Gore and State Farm v. Campbell). In State Farm, for example, the Court suggested that the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages should be low, perhaps only one-to-one, where the compensatory damages are substantial. Few courts have paid any attention to that holding, but perhaps this case will serve as a reminder to the lower courts about this aspect of the Court's earlier holdings. Indeed, it seems likely that the Court would refer to its ratio analysis in State Farm if the Court addresses the ratio issue in the Exxon Valdez case.

We've recently seen two California cases in which the courts reduced punitive damage awards down to a one-to-one ratio (Jet Source v. Doherty and Walker v. Farmers Insurance) based on State Farm. This may become a growing trend if the Supreme Court revisits this notion in the Exxon Valdez opinion.
If the Court focuses on the ratio between the punitive damages and the plaintiffs' actual harm, that will raise some interesting questions about exactly what the plaintiffs' "actual harm" is. The Ninth Circuit's opinion included not only the compensatory damages awarded, but also settlements and judgments obtained by "various plaintiffs." The opinion does not make clear whether those "various plaintiffs" included parties not before the court in this case. Does that sort of analysis comport with the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion last year in Philip Morris v. Williams, which held that defendants may not be punished for harm to others?

Exxon argued that, for purposes of calculating its "actual harm," the court should subtract Exxon's payment of $493 million through its voluntary claims program and other settlements. Thus, if the actual harm was $513.1 million (as found by the Ninth Circuit), the remaining total would be only $20.1 million. Even at the maximum ratio of nine-to-one, that would cap the punitive damages at $180 million, a far cry from the $2.5 billion approved by the Ninth Circuit.

It will be interesting to see if the Court resolves any of these issues surrounding the calculation of the proper ratio, or simply sends the case back to the Ninth Circuit with directions to re-assess the ratio under some new standard announced by the Supreme Court.