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In re Exxon Valdez: Alaska Native Class v. Exxon



A group of Alaska Natives filed a class action against Exxon Corporation (Exxon) as a result of the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Alaska Natives sued for loss of a subsistence way of life. The District Court for the District of Alaska entered summary judgment in favor of Exxon. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, stating that the Alaska Natives’ claim for noneconomic damage failed to prove a “special injury” as required in order to bring a private suit for a public nuisance.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska causing a massive oil spill. Alaska Natives initiated a class action against Exxon Corporation. Included in the class were Alaska Natives and Native organizations such as individual Native villages, incorporated and unincorporated Native entities and associations, and tribal entities. Eventually all Native villages and governmental entities were excluded from the class definition, limiting it to 3455 individual Alaska Natives. The class claimed that as a result of the oil spill, its subsistence way of life was damaged.[1] The complaint also averred damage to archaeological sites and artifacts, natural resources, and property, all of which were part of the plaintiffs’ natural habitat and lives. After claims for loss of fish harvest were settled, the only claims remaining were those involving noneconomic damage. Exxon subsequently moved for summary judgment on the noneconomic claims.

The Alaska Natives class claimed that noneconomic damages were recoverable under general maritime law, the Alaska Environmental Conservation Act,[2] and the common law of Alaska. The class essentially stated a public nuisance claim for noneconomic damage under federal maritime law. In granting Exxon’s motion for summary judgment, the district court relied on the “special injury rule” as defined through common law and the Restatement (Second) of Torts.[3] According to the special injury rule, a private party can bring suit for a public nuisance only if she can show a special injury different in kind, not just in magnitude, than that suffered by the general public. In affirming Exxon’s motion for summary judgment, the Ninth Circuit held that the noneconomic injury suffered by the class was not different in kind than that suffered by the general public and therefore the special injury rule was not satisfied.

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that the oil spill affected the communal life of the Alaska Natives. However, it held that although the injury suffered by the class might be different in magnitude, it was not different in kind than that suffered by other Alaskans. In reaching this conclusion, the court reasoned that the Alaska Constitution does not limit the right to a subsistence lifestyle to Alaska Natives.[4] Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that the class failed to show any special injury sufficient to support a claim for public nuisance, and therefore affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in Exxon’s favor.

[1]The Ninth Circuit defined the “subsistence way of life” allegedly damaged by the oil spill as “dependent upon the preservation of uncontaminated natural resources, marine life and wildlife, and reflects a personal, economic[,] psychological, social, cultural, communal and religious form of daily living.” In re Exxon Valdez, 104 F.3d 1196, 1197 (9th Cir. 1997).

[2]Alaska Stat. § 46.03.822 (Michie 1996).

[3]Restatement (Second) of Torts § 821C(1) cmt. b (1989).

[4]Alaska Const. art. VIII, §§ 3, 15, 17.

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