George Graham

Companies Likely to Escape Justice in Gulf Disaster

The gusher in the Gulf is going to leave a legacy of devastation and misery that will last for decades. And, judging from similar events in the past, the companies and individuals responsible are not likely to pay anything like a fair price for their reckless disregard of safety in the pursuit of untrammeled greed.

The story of the Exxon Valdez (illustration above) comes to mind. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, when an oil tanker … hit (the) Bligh Reef and spilled a minimum 10.8 million US gallons (40.9 million litres, or 250,000 barrels) of crude oil ….

Thousands of animals died immediately – (from) 100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas ….

Almost 20 years after the spill, a team of scientists at the University of North Carolina found that the effects are lasting far longer than expected. The team estimates some shoreline Arctic habitats may take up to 30 years to recover.

The disaster also had horrific economic consequences. Fishermen who lost their livelihoods sued and an Anchorage jury awarded $287 million for actual damages and $5 billion for punitive damages. According to Wikipedia, the punitive damages were equal to a single year’s profit by Exxon at that time.

Exxon appealed again and again over the years,and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cut the damages award to $2.5 billion in 2006.  But Exxon wasn’t satisfied.

The company took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 25, 2008, the Court issued a ruling that vacated the $2.5 billion award and limited punitive damages to the same as the compensatory damages of $507.5 million.

(Interestingly, Justice Samuel Alito owned between $100,000 and $250,000 in Exxon stock at the time, and recused himself from the case.)

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is even more friendly to Big Business. So, you can expect a kinder, gentler ruling when those responsible for the Gulf “spill” appeal the awards that are sure to be levied against them (as they are sure to do).

And, whatever they do end up paying, someone else will no doubt bear the brunt of it. Probably the public – and that includes you and me. We’re the ones who always end up absorbing any increase in corporate expenses.

Consider this illuminating sentence from the Wikipedi account of the Exxon Valdez disaster:

Exxon recovered a significant portion of clean-up and legal expenses through insurance claims associated with the grounding of the Exxon Valdez.

And insurance companies recoup their losses by raising premiums, so the increase will be passed along down the line – till it gets to us.

Another thing. You may have noticed how long it takes for the wheels of justice to turn in cases like this. And, apparently, this absurd delay in achieving justice is not unique to America. Today’s news includes an item announcing that:

An Indian court Monday convicted seven former senior employees of Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary of “death by negligence” for their roles in the Bhopal gas tragedy that left an estimated 15,000 people dead more than a quarter century ago in the world’s worst industrial disaster.

The former employees, many of them in their 70s, were sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay fines of 100,000 rupees ($2,175) apiece. All seven were released on bail shortly after the verdict.

The subsidiary, Union Carbide India Ltd., was convicted of the same charge and ordered to pay a fine of rupees 500,000 ($10,870). Union Carbide eventually sold its shares in the subsidiary company, which was renamed Eveready Industries India.

You remember the Union Carbide incident, don’t you?  If you do, you’ve got to be in your thirties. Unless you remember news events from your infancy.

The disaster occurred on Dec. 3, 1984, when a pesticide plant run by Union Carbide leaked about 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into the air in the city of Bhopal in central India, quickly killing about 4,000 people. The lingering effects of the poison raised the death toll to about 15,000 over the next few years.

That’s right – 1984. The case dragged on for 26 years! And the Exxon Valdez litigation has taken nearly 20 years.

Justice delayed is supposed to be justice denied. But if you’ve got the money, honey, the courts have got the time.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for