U.S. Supreme Court

Possible Split in Exxon Punitives Case

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Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. has recused himself in Exxon Mobil’s appeal of a $2.5 billion punitive damages award, raising the possibility of a 4-4 split.

A tie vote in the dispute over damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill would have the effect of upholding the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that cut the original $5 billion award in half, Legal Times reports.

Alito’s latest financial disclosure statement shows that he owns as much as $250,000 in Exxon stock, the legal newspaper says. His views on the constitutionality of high punitive awards remain unclear.

In the court’s most recent ruling on punitive damages, Alito joined a five-person majority to overturn a $79.5 million award against Philip Morris, the New York Times reports. Rather than relying on constitutional grounds, the decision said the jury may have improperly considered harm to other smokers in setting damages.

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the appeal yesterday, but indicated it would consider only whether the award is excessive under maritime law. Exxon had also argued the award was so high as to violate the Constitution’s due process requirement.

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