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Court rejects Exxon appeal against $5bn verdict

An appeal by the Exxon Corp. on the dlrs 5 billion Valdez oil spill civil verdict has been rejected.

A San Francisco-based court of appeals has ruled that the verdict should not be thrown out because of irregularities during jury deliberations.

The appeal of the punitive damages verdict was one of several filed by Exxon and co-defendant Joseph Hazelwood, who was in charge of the tanker Exxon Valdez when it drove onto a charted reef in Prince William Sound in March 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons (41.6 million liters) of Alaska crude oil.

The spill, the nation's worst ever, polluted more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of shoreline, killed tens of thousands of birds and marine mammals, and disrupted fishing.

The appeal in question focused on the behavior of Don Warrick, a court bailiff who escorted the jury and served it food during the five months of trial and deliberations in 1994.

After the verdict, an Anchorage newspaper reported that the deliberations were highly emotional, and that juror Rita Wilson was especially stressed out by the process and not getting along well with the others.

Judge H. Russel Holland convened a hearing after the story was published.

Doug Graham, another of the jurors, told the judge during the hearing that the bailiff suggested to him one morning that the others might want to put Wilson "out of her misery."

While saying this, the bailiff pulled out his gun and took out one of its bullets, the juror said. The bailiff at first denied the allegation, but later admitted he made the comments as a joke. Warrick lost his job. He died from a heart attack a few months later.

Exxon argued that the bailiff's comments were inappropriate and coercive.

Holland ruled that a new trial wasn't warranted because Wilson didn't know during the deliberations about a conversation between Warrick and Graham.

"We're pleased to have one of the collateral skirmishes out of the way," said Anchorage lawyer David Oesting, part of the legal team representing fishermen and other plaintiffs. "I think it was a grasp at straws by Exxon."

Exxon spokesman Bob Davis would not comment on the ruling.