The physical cleanup following one of the worst oil spills in history, that of the Exxon Valdez, is done. The legal cleanup, however, has barely begun. Over 100 law firms participating in over 200 suits in federal and state courts involving more than 30,000 claims are presently engaged in litigation. Fishermen, cannery workers, fishing lodges, tour boat operators, oil companies whose shipments were delayed, and even California motorists facing higher gasoline prices have filed claims against Exxon and its fellow defendants.
Most claimants face a formidable roadblock, the so-called Robins doctrine. Under Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co. v. Flint, those who have suffered only "pure economic losses" are barred from recovery. The Robins bar has been explicitly extended to most of the indirect victims of oil and chemical spills. Following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, the Ninth Circuit, in Union Oil Company v. Oppen, barred the claims of all the indirect victims save the commercial fishermen. A decade later, in State of La. ex rel. Guste v. M/V Testbank, after extensive debate, the Fifth Circuit sitting en bane reaffirmed the vitality of Robins, again recognizing an exception for commercial fishermen. The Exxon Valdez disaster provides a good vehicle for reassessing the rationale for the Robins bar on recovery.
Victor P. Goldberg,
Recovery for Economic Loss Following the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,
J. Legal Stud.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/2644