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This was not the outcome that Brian O'Neill had hoped for. It was not the outcome for which he had worked 20 years, on behalf of more than 32,000 plaintiffs. No, this wasn't the way things were supposed to go.
O'Neill, '74, represented victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound. The spill killed 250,000 seabirds, wiped out fisheries, and eventually led to as many as 30 suicides by people—including a mayor—who felt hopeless in the wake of the disaster.
O'Neill wanted to provide hope to the people whose livelihoods were affected by the spill. And so he did, in the form of a $5.3 billion verdict handed down by an Alaskan jury in 1994. Exxon (now Exxon Mobil) fought the verdict, and the dispute lingered in the legal system until a final U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2008 reduced the amount of punitive damages to $500 million. The Court said that federal maritime law prevents punitive damages from being any larger than the compensatory damages the company already had been ordered to pay.
That broke down to a relatively small amount for people who had counted on the original award to help them rebuild their careers, their industries, their lives. The duration of the case meant that nearly a quarter of the plaintiffs never got to hear the end result because they had passed away.
"The judicial system is supposed to help people resolve a wrong that they had no control over. But there are thousands of people in Alaska now who think the legal system is stacked against everyone except big corporations," O'Neill says.
He can't blame the Alaskans. Indeed, though he once had faith in the process, he no longer does: "That's one of the reasons I retired a few years earlier than I'd originally planned, because I don't believe in the judicial system anymore."
His outlook on environmental law once was much more optimistic. Always an outdoorsy person, O'Neill's focus on environmental law began when Professor Joseph Sax connected him with a group that needed help protecting wolves in northern Minnesota. Almost all of his environmental cases, including that one, were pro bono—until the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989.
O'Neill knew colleagues in Alaska, and they asked for his help. For the first five or six years of the case, he says, it was intellectually challenging. After that, though, "it turned into a burden I couldn't get rid of." He wanted to help the victims, many of whom had become friends, but the case continued to take up much of his time even while he had other responsibilities as a partner at Faegre & Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels).
In spite of his feelings about the Supreme Court's ruling in the Exxon Valdez case, O'Neill says all is not lost for the environment or for environmental law. He anticipates that many cases will end up with more favorable results than the ultimate decision in the Exxon case—especially if decision-makers are aware of the importance of protecting the environment.
"I want judges ruling on these cases who have slept outside at night, who understand the importance of wild things," he says.
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Professor Joseph Sax and his Intellectual Home at Michigan Law
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