The federal government indicted Exxon on five criminal charges, with potential penalties totaling $5 billion. The company soon agreed to plead guilty to three counts with a fine of $25 million, or less than 1 percent of the total potential criminal fine, plus $900 million in civil fines to be paid over a 10-year period. In addition, the company paid $2.1 billion in cleanup costs, and several hundred million dollars more to fishermen for their lost summer catch. In all, the company would pay $3.4 billion.
But the money that Exxon doesn't want to pay is the punitive damages. The punitive damages are the fines that the court assigns to the defendant in punish them for being stupid and breaking law. Its supposed to discourage the defendant and its peers from doing it again. You can't put a company in jail, but you can fine them lots of money.
And boy, they sure don't want to pay it. Exxon has taken this all the way to the Supreme Court.
But Exxon contends that because this accident occurred at sea and is governed by maritime law, which is the sole province of the federal courts, there should be no punitive damages at all.
Part of me wishes I could know more about the law here, but then I remember that I don't really want to be a lawyer and thats probably what it would take to really understand this.
But I do know one thing about what will happen at the Supreme Court today; Clarence Thomas wont be asking any questions.