Monday, March 3, 2008

SCOTUS commentary on Exxon Valdez argument

The SCOTUS blog commentary seems to track my view that SCOTUS will limit punitives. SCOTUS blog  The context in which the Supreme Court is deciding the case, maritime law, is interesting.  The court is acting as a common law court and developing common law rules.  So, in theory, it could write any rule, including one that follows State Farm.  But, if I understand the context correctly, due process still applies.  So even its common law rule will have to comport with State Farm.  Right?

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Um, they didn't grant cert on that issue...

There was talk of multipliers at oral argument however, apparently as a matter of maritime law.

Posted by: Noone | Mar 11, 2008 4:32:22 PM

Under maritime law an owner's liability for errors in navigation, not within the privity or knowlege of the owner, is limited to the value of the vessel. The 9th circuit seems to be holding Exxon liable under a theory that the captain was high enough in the corportation that his actions are the actions of the corportation, rather than vicarious liability. In Waterman Steamship Corp. v. Gay Cottons, the 9th Circuit decided that a master of a vessel who was delegated entire managerial repairs over a companies vessel in the Far East, still could not be held to be such a superior officer that he was acting as the company itself. The court noted that knowlege had been imputed in cases involving tugs and barges where the company negligently maintained vessels within its home port, but would be chary to hold large vessels at sea to the same liability. The case cites Admiral Towing Co. v. Woolen,(company liable where master hires crewman but company takes no steps to insure crewman's competency) which noted in dicta that "limitation would be granted even where a master had unlimited authority but his negligence was "instantaneous negligence" over which the shipowner could not possibly exercise control." Here, it should be noted, despite popular opinion, that Capt. Hazelwood was not at the conn at the time of the allision and was not drunk when he turned over the conn to a seemingly competent third mate who failed to follow the Captain's instructions.

As to looking at state law to guide it's decisions, maritime law hold the opposite view than other fields. In Byrd v. Byrd the court noted that where Congress is silent, the courts may not look to state law but should look to decisions that ensure uniformity and predictability across state boundaries. That is why the OPA 90 and the CWA are better sources to formulate a rule on punitives. In drafting the OPA, Congress was concerned that leaving oil tanker owners open to unlimited liabilty would leave them uninsurable or at least make the shipment of oil prohibitively expensive, so as a compromise excluded punitive damages from the act.

Not sure why none of this came up in oral arguements.

Posted by: shoirca | Mar 6, 2008 9:39:13 PM

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