Exxon to argue jury that gave $5 billion was tainted

Lawyers allege bailiff pressured holdout juror in Alaska oil spill case


SEATTLE -- A federal appeals court will hear arguments today that the jury that awarded more than $5 billion in damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spill was tainted by a bailiff who pulled out his gun and joked about putting a holdout juror "out of her misery."

The same juror, who attempted suicide three weeks after the verdict, alleged she was threatened by other jurors and by the bailiff, who was forced to resign from the U.S. Marshals Service after admitting he had offered his gun and a bullet to one of the jurors and had improperly socialized with the jury.

The appeal sheds light on the deliberations that produced the largest punitive damage award in U.S. history, revealing a jury beset with loud arguments, tearful outbursts and a nagging fear that it was unequipped to resolve the complex economic and scientific dilemmas arising from the disastrous 1989 tanker accident that spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Two jurors found dead fish on their lawns after the August 1994 award of $287 million in compensatory damages, court papers show.

Another juror suffered angina pains and got a doctor's letter recommending she be excused from the tense deliberations.

The oral arguments are scheduled before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the stakes for Exxon are high.

The company is seeking to overturn a total of $5.3 billion in compensatory and punitive damages due to be paid to tens of thousands of fishermen, landowners, business owners and tribal natives who live and work around Prince William Sound.

The verdict "was tainted by coercion of the jury on the part of a rogue court security officer," Exxon lawyers argued in their appeal, which challenges the verdict on a variety of legal grounds.

"He intruded into the jury's deliberative process, brandished firearms at jurors, took sides in the deliberations and committed perjury to conceal his misconduct," the company's lawyers contend.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland, the trial judge in Anchorage, found the bailiff's actions had no effect on the deliberations and said he did not find juror Rita Wilson to be credible when she raised allegations about a series of threats supposedly lodged against her when she held out against awarding punitive damages.

The chief lawyer for the plaintiffs, Brian O'Neill, dismissed the bailiff's actions as a harmless joke and pointed out that Wilson, a former Anchorage school library aide, did not claim she was threatened until long after the trial.

In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, jurors denied Wilson was ever threatened but admitted they had sought to have her removed from the case after she refused to consider awarding punitive damages, repeatedly ran crying from the room and demonstrated what they saw as emotional instability.

"I am confident in the process, that it worked, and that all of us gave it our best judgment," foreman Kenneth Murray said. "As far as the allegations [about threats] that she made later, like the judge said: I think she believes what she believes, and I don't believe any of the rest of us believe any of it."

Juror Doug Graham said he is convinced that Wilson concurred with the $5-billion punitive damage award. "At that moment, yes," he said. "There were people in the room that were asking her, `Are you sure?' And she was."

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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