TorteDeForm

Kia Franklin

In the News (Thursday)

At the High Court, Damage Control (Washington Post):

Chief Justice John Roberts was pained.

Exxon Mobil, the giant oil corporation appearing before the Supreme Court yesterday, had earned a profit of nearly $40 billion in 2006, the largest ever reported by a U.S. company -- but that's not what bothered Roberts. What bothered the chief justice was that Exxon was being ordered to pay $2.5 billion -- roughly three weeks' worth of profits -- for destroying a long swath of the Alaska coastline in the largest oil spill in American history.

"So what can a corporation do to protect itself against punitive-damages awards such as this?" Roberts asked in court.

The lawyer arguing for the Alaska fishermen affected by the spill, Jeffrey Fisher, had an idea. "Well," he said, "it can hire fit and competent people."

The rare sound of laughter rippled through the august chamber. The chief justice did not look amused. (Keep reading, it gets better.)

Kia Franklin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 9:48 AM, Feb 28, 2008 in Corporate Abuse | In the News | Supreme Court Rulings
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Comments

Seems like the crowd was probably more amused at the lawyer's feigned naivete than anything else... as anyone who's actually done hiring can tell you, you can background check and reference check all you like, there's simply no way to be certain a new employee is "fit and competent". At least, I hope the crowd was astute enough to observe that. They were probably fully aware that the only accurate answer to that question is "nothing".

Posted by: Matthew | February 28, 2008 12:47 PM

As part of its settlement with the Department of Justice and the State of Alaska, Exxon agreed to implement a new policy to forbid captaincies to people with alcohol problems. Whereupon Exxon was threatened with a lawsuit by the EEOC because of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Posted by: Ted | February 28, 2008 8:15 PM

Reading this article, I was struck by the total disregard for actual law and precedent by the conservative Justices - most of whom are self-proclaimed "originalists" and "strict constructionists" who believe in "judicial restraint." The oral arguments showed these grand philosophical musings for what they are: mere window dressing in the service of plutocracy.

This shouldn't have been a difficult case. Under the time-honored legal doctrine of respondeat superior, employers are responsible for torts committed by employees during the course of their job duties. Captain Hazelwood committed a mass tort while carrying out his job duty of piloting the Valdez. Therefore, Hazelwood's employer - Exxon - was responsible for his actions. The claims to the contrary are frivolous on their face, and should not have been entertained at all by the Court.

Posted by: Josh G. | March 2, 2008 8:33 PM

Josh, no one is disputing that Exxon is liable for compensatory damages. The question is whether the law permits outsized punitive damages for an unintentional act of an employee violating company policy when (1) Exxon already paid $3.4 billion before punitives, (2) there was no risk that Exxon's act would go undetected necessitating the additional deterrence of punitive damages for deterrence, and (3) Exxon already paid large environmental fines that were found by a court to be fully deterrent. It was the Ninth Circuit and the district court that failed to follow the law, and they will likely be corrected by the Supreme Court.

Posted by: Ted | March 3, 2008 6:45 AM