Exxon Valdez Trial: Did Recklessness or Error Cause Spill?

IN a packed United States District Court room last week, former Exxon Valdez supertanker captain Joseph Hazelwood broke his five-year public silence and relived the moments after he saw crude oil gushing from his ship's punctured hull.

``The world as I'd known it had come to an end,'' the fired Huntington, N.Y., mariner said Thursday. ``I wanted to be anyone else but the person on Bligh Reef.''

The account came at the start of the multibillion-dollar class-action trial on individuals' damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. At issue is whether the 11-million-gallon disaster was caused by simple human error or the recklessness of a corporation that had the wealth and knowledge to do better.

The first phase of the summer-long trial deals with whether the spill was caused by recklessness, thus warranting punitive damages. Key to the recklessness question is the role of alcohol: What did Exxon know about its former captain's alcohol troubles, and what did the oil giant do in response?

The plaintiffs maintain that Exxon was cavalier in its dealings with a captain who was hospitalized for alcohol treatment in 1985 but was immediately reassigned to sea duty and resumed drinking openly in 1986.

``Shoreside management was recklessly indifferent to how they treated this man, they were recklessly indifferent to the public, and they were recklessly indifferent to a disaster in the making,'' Brian O'Neill, chief trial attorney for the plaintiffs, said in opening arguments May 9.

Also at issue are Exxon's shipboard economies, such as stretched work schedules that are alleged to have caused crew fatigue.

Exxon admits negligence in the March 24, 1989, accident, saying Hazelwood violated company policy by leaving the bridge at the critical juncture before the grounding, an error compounded by Coast Guard errors.

``It's very easy to talk about big, terrible Exxon Corporation like it was the Evil Empire or the Terminator,'' Exxon attorney Pat Lynch said in his opening. But ``these are people who had no motives to be reckless and who did, in fact, get up every morning and try to do the best job they could.... This is an accident that resulted from a lot of improbable errors.''

The company denies recklessness, saying it took reasonable setps to monitor Hazelwood while maintaining his privacy.

After the 12-member jury decides whether recklessness existed, the trial moves to the next phase, to determine the amount of compensatory payments to the some 14,000 fishermen, Alaska Natives, and property owners in the plaintiff groups.

Expected is a scientific duel over the lingering impacts of the spill. One focus will be Prince William Sound's vanishing pink salmon and herring runs. With this spring's herring harvest canceled because of a sparse return, area fishermen and Natives say the spill has partially sterilized the sound.

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