The $80.01 Award

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Sep 05, 2009

"It's good to feel the rush of something nice coming."
Samuel Smiles

I had no idea that one of my best friends, Dr. Dan Mortensen, had a personal connection to theExxon Valdez oil spill that occurred on March 24, 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska. This is the story of that connection. 

The Exxon Valdez left the Valdez oil terminal in Alaska bound for Long Beach, CA at 9:12pm on March 23, 1989. A harbor pilot guided the ship through the Valdez narrows before leaving the ship and returning control to Captain Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood. He maneuvered the ship out of the shipping lane to avoid icebergs. 

Following the maneuver and sometime after 11pm Captain Hazelwood left the wheel house and turned his responsibility to Third Mate Gregory Cousins and Able Seaman Robert Kagan. Neither of these two men was given their mandatory six hours off duty before their 12 hour duty began. 

The ship was on auto-pilot, using the navigation system installed by the company that constructed the ship. Since the outbound shipping lane was covered with icebergs, Captain Hazelwood got permission from the Coast Guard to go out through the inbound lane. The ship struck Bligh Reef at around 12:04am, March 24, 1989. 

The ship was carrying 53.1 million U.S. gallons of oil and official reports stated that 10.8 million U.S. gallons were spilled into Prince William Sound eventually covering 11,000 square miles. 

The Exxon Valdez spill is considered one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters ever to occur at sea. And though there have been many much larger oil spills, the remote location (accessible only by helicopter and boat) enormously complicated the cleanup. 

The short-term and long-term effects are literally incalculable. Thousands of animals immediately died and even after 20 years the region is still recovering from the disaster. 

By now you are probably wondering what the Exxon Valdez oil spill has to do with Dr. Mortensen. During the summers of 1976 to 1988 Dr. Mortensen had fished in Yukutat, an area covered by the spill. At the encouragement of a friend, he applied and joined 32,000 litigants against Exxon. 

In 1994 a jury awarded the 32,000 litigants $5.3 billion. If evenly divided by those litigants, an award would equal $165,625 per person. Dr. Mortensen thought he might be eligible for at least something close to that average. He began anticipating how he would use all that money. 

A few years later the Ninth Circuit reduced the original award to $2.8 billion. His portion could still average $87,500. That was still a lot of money that could be put to good use. 

A few years later in June 2008 the Supreme Court capped the award at $0.5 billion. If he got any, his portion could be $15,625. 

A few months later in August 2008 Exxon Mobil agreed to settle the case for 75% of that $0.5 billion award. 

Dr. Mortensen had waited all those years for a possible check and now he might be eligible to receive $11,719. This was obviously much less than the original amount but it was still a handsome sum. 

On March 23, 2009, just one day shy of the 20th anniversary of the original spill his check arrived. When Dr. Mortensen told this story he asked, "Guess how much it was?" With a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, he answered, "$80.01. I had so much hope that I was going to get a big fat check from Exxon Mobil and ended up getting enough to take Shelli out to dinner...after 20 years. (That's $4 per year.)" 

No wonder Aesop said "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched." Anticipation can be greater than realization. Some people spend all of their time looking for a perfect tomorrow and never enjoying their lives today. 

I think Seneca understood this when he wrote, "Expecting is the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow, it loses today." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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