Exxon, the most profitable company in the history of the world (earning $40.61 billion last year), recently enjoyed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which slashed roughly $2 billion of punitive damages awarded against it in 1994 over the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The plaintiffs – over 32,000 Alaskans – have now asked the court to award $488 million in interest on top of the reduced damages, something that is routine in virtually every case and which recognizes the interest that money owed to the plaintiffs would have earned had the defendant paid the debt when it was due.
Now in a move that must make even the most hardcore, pro-business tort-reformer blush, Exxon has asked the court to deny the plaintiffs interest because “the substantial delay here was not in any sense Exxon’s fault.” Uh, weren’t they the losers at trial who appealed the judgment in the first place?
Exxon’s shameful audacity knows no bounds. And if the Supremes rule in their favor, the take-over of that court by Big Business appears complete.
There’s a good op-ed online in today’s Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi by insurance-defense lawyer Alex Alston (certainly no bomb-throwing liberal trial lawyer) about how that state’s high court has shifted to protecting businesses and insurers over injured consumers. Switch the states and names and he could as well be describing the Texas Supreme Court.
Notable among Alston’s comments are these:
“Our entire judicial system is built on a “rule of law.” In other words, it makes no difference whether you are a prince or a pauper, the law must be precisely the same for all. A court that substitutes its opinion for that of a jury, or simply decides a case for the benefit of a favored party, tears the basic fabric of our judicial system to shreds. If the rule of law is not followed, the entire foundation of our judicial system is undermined. The public has a right to expect the Supreme Court to follow the rule of law and decide the cases before it fairly and impartially without favor to any party regardless of status, race, creed or color…Should we not demand that [they] follow the rule of law? Certainly it is a fair question to ask why 88 percent of the time, the court reverses a jury verdict for a plaintiff and substitutes its own opinion, and why, in 100 percent of the cases involving an injured victim’s appeals from a jury verdict in favor of a defendant, the court finds for the wealthy or powerful defendant. Our court must be more than a rubber stamp for the rich and powerful. Shouldn’t we expect that and more?”
Well said, Mr. Alston. Undermining the rule of law for injured consumers hurts us all in the long run.
Jury service in the United States is unique among justice systems worldwide, so much
so that American juries have been called the “bulwark of democracy.” In fact, our Founding Fathers believed trial by a jury of one’s peers to be of equal importance with representative government, and both concepts were integral in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson said, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet devised by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Well over two hundred years later, Jefferson’s anchor still holds fast, despite repeated attempts to dislodge it.
But is the jury system at risk? Regretfully, yes. More and more arbitration clauses, anti-consumer legislation, and anecdotal horror stories about “frivolous lawsuits” and “out of control jury verdicts” have put a damper on the number of civil cases that go before a jury. Coincidentally, a recent nationwide poll shows that a majority of Americans do not mind jury service and view it as a privilege and an active part of democracy. It is ironic that in a time of declining access to the courthouse, most of us are willing to serve as jurors.
Quite simply, jurors level the playing field in the search for justice. My favorite fictional lawyer, Atticus Finch, says in that classic book To Kill a Mockingbird, “The only place where a man ought to get a square deal is in the courtroom.” How true. The next time you open the mail to find a jury summons, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on the importance of jury service and perhaps groan a little softer. And I hope your experience as a juror is rewarding and meaningful.