Exxon argues that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to award punitive damages against Hazelwood or against itself for Hazelwood’s conduct. Its theory is that the evidence, which it concedes established negligence, can establish no more. As Exxon portrays it, Hazelwood [master of m/t Exxon Valdez] left the vessel in the hands of an experienced mate, with a clear instruction to turn right at the Busby Island light, and the mate unaccountably failed to carry out this simple instruction.

A jury could have interpreted the evidence as Exxon suggests, but it plainly did not. A far more damning account was well supported by testimony, exhibits, and reasonable inferences from them. The jury reasonably could have concluded that Hazelwood took command of the ship [Exxon Valdez] so drunk that a non-alcoholic would have passed out, made it harder to avoid the reef by taking the course east of the ice, made it harder to maneuver between the ice and the reef by putting the ship on an autopilot program that sped the vessel up, then left the ship in the hands of an overtired third mate just two minutes before the critical maneuver, barely enough time to calculate what to do and conduct the maneuver. Hazelwood’s instructions were vague, and turning a supertanker right at the light is not like turning a car right at the light on dry pavement, more like turning right on glare ice. In so doing, Hazelwood violated numerous legal regulations as well as common sense in caring for his vessel.

IN RE: the EXXON VALDEZ, United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. Nos. 97-35191 to 97-35193 and 97-35235. Decided: November 7, 2001.

See also Master and Pilot