Exxon Valdez Case Analysis: Common Research Proposal

Excerpt from Research Proposal :

Like most litigations on such complicated issues the company had little to do but show reasonable accommodation, adopt better surface practices and wait out a lengthy period before their liability was reduced substantially by the courts.

Ethical analysis:

The key ethical issues of the case are pretty clear, did the captain knowingly endanger the environment by continuing to retain his position and navigate tankers through the area and did the company know that such was the case. Both ethical dilemmas are clear and were ruled upon by many hours of court time and subsequent appeals, though the final Supreme Court ruling on Exxon's liability for the spill was split 4:4 every other deciding body laid full responsibility on Exxon's lap. ("Exxon Valdez Damages Reduced," June 2008, NP). An additional ethical issue, though much less openly understood or known by the average American is weather it was ethical to pay fishermen large sums of money to use their boats to help in the cleanup, with the inclusion of release of liability contracts that stated they would not seek compensatory damages in the future against Exxon for the disaster itself and any subsequent economic or physical damage it might have done.

As the nation's worst oil spill spread along a thousand miles of Alaska's beaches, the Exxon Corporation was offering fishermen between $2,000 and $5,000 a day for the use of their boats in the cleanup, but they had to sign an agreement to keep their mouths shut. Some Alaskans were shocked by this blatant corporate arrogance, which seemed only to add to the stench of the 10-million-gallon slick. In truth, however, the hush money started fl[n]owing long before Exxon's tanker hit the rocks. (Greely, 1989, p. 721)

In a deontological sense the ethical actions of the Captain are clear as he was likely aware that his impaired judgment, having already experienced rehabilitation and relapsing, that expanded his ethical responsibility. He was also very likely to have been aware of the serious nature of a large environmental disaster, at his fingertips when the accident occurred. This obviously showed a complete disregard for ethical considerations of universal applications of ethics, i.e. do no harm. In a humanistic sense the same is true as his actions would clearly not have helped or aided humanity in any way, but were selfish acts. Consequential theories would also assassinate the Captain as his actions did not result in the desired results, i.e. A safe trip through the sound with his massive ship and cargo. From a deontological perspective, regarding Exxon's involvement and/or negligence in the situation is much more expansive, as is the humanist and consequential perspective. Exxon's actions were clearly an example of the status quo of big business, i.e. make every attempt to limit liability after the fact as apposed to preventing failure in the first place. Exxon knew for more than three years that the captain at the helm of the Valdez had an alcohol problem and had continue to drink (sometimes even on duty) after he had completed rehab is a significant ethical dilemma, as it knowingly place people, the economy and the environment in dire danger with disregard for potential loss. From a consequential perspective the company was negligent in its duties to exercise reasonable care for the whole of the situation it had in its control and the outcome was a massive disaster, not the desired outcome, that had and still has lasting effects. In a legal sense, from a humanistic perspective the if the company had resolved itself to the payment of reparations, beyond limited though expensive clean up of the spill and attempting to limit its own liability it was also at fault. Legal stakeholders had some success in changing the situation to better serve an ethical goal, as the case became a benchmark for change, but it simply pointed out a problem and relied again on existing but limited precedence to support the company rather than the consumer or other hurt parties.

Contributing factors:

The companies culture seriously aided in the development of unethical standards as the don't ask don't tell" policy of not dismissing captains after they have failed to resolve substance abuse issues is in question in a big way. The company culture also helped unethical behavior when it managed to develop countless ways to limit its own liability for the results of the spill by asking people in dire straits, subsistence fisherman, to sign away their rights to later reparations if compensation offered by the company for use of boats did not meet their long-term economic damages for the event. Most if not all of the responses to the situation revolved around corporate liability limitation, rather than real compensation for damages.

Ethical decision factors to consider:

1. Allowing the captain to continue to captain and navigate ships after knowledge of substance abuse issues. Consider the companies policy on such allowance of continued employment. If the policy should have been altered or even followed to begin with.

Consider the scope of awareness, i.e. how many known reported and documented incidences of substance abuse were present for this and other captains or key personnel who have similar problems. In a humanistic sense what is the message to the corporate culture that ignoring such a problem is acceptable? Also what is the impact of this on universal ethical principles i.e. is it better to keep a person with a problem employed through loyalty to the individual with the problem or better to protect the company assets and the environment?

2. The scope of company awareness as to the environmental and economic damage a spill would cause.

Humanistic, and deontological; were environmental impact studies conducted by the company and available to employees in charge of large vessels or supporting such vessels in their work? Were there other captains who would have been able to conduct the vessel safely, presuming that they were not impaired by alcohol or other substances?

3. The navigability of the Sound and other key areas where the tanker(s) work. The quantity of oil and scope of the task given to someone who was known to be impaired any or all of the time he was in charge. Consequentially, why did the company not apply the understanding of how difficult the work was, how vulnerable the tanker and the environment were to rupture and subsequent spill?

Recommended corrective action:

1. Adopt and apply universal drug and alcohol testing with a zero tolerance policy for infractions. Offering severance, demotion or simple termination to individuals with identified problems associated with random drug and alcohol testing.

2. Change the corporate culture to address these issues in a preventative manner rather than ignoring or blatantly allowing such behaviors to impair judgment of those in charge of large dangerous assets.

3. Make environmental impact scope and scale available to all employees, who conduct such business and/or support the conduction of such business.

4. Fully understand and express the vulnerability of tankers and the difficulty of navigation in certain areas to key personnel in an attempt to clearly express the danger of bad actions.

5. A court example: hold key stakeholders in the company to more culpability for negligence including but not limited to the captain and all who knew of his condition and problem. (Recine, 2002, 1535)

6. Societal response, decrease institutional self-interest in education and corporate culture. Corporate and individual secrecy, that is clearly contrary to open communication and sharing about science and technology, one of its many founding principles.

There is, to begin with, the kind of secrecy that everyone deplores but that is fostered by institutional cultures of self-interest, both public and private -- when scientific facts that the public has a right to know are intentionally hidden and knowingly withheld to preserve the economic or political standing of powerful organizations. Examples include drug companies that fail to disclose reports of adverse reactions to their products, (57) car manufacturers that hide technical defects in their vehicles, (58) employers and polluters who conceal data about illness caused by their activities, (59) and governmental agencies that paper over malfunctions in technologies that are deemed key to the success of their missions. (60) Impediments to criticism and communication have also arisen within universities, the traditional strongholds of scientific openness, as a result of private sponsorship that contractually demands secrecy. (61) Yet, problematically for law and policy, unlawful or indefensible concealment is bound up even in these relatively clear-cut cases with defensible grounds for not making things known. Corporate-funded science, for example, may enjoy commercial confidentiality, and publicly funded science in sectors such as computers or biotechnology may be shielded by legitimate, if overused, demands for secrecy in the name…

Sources Used in Document:


Feinman, J.M. (2000). Law 101: Everything You Need to Know about the American Legal System. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Exxon Valdez Damages Reduced," June 2008, Business Law Prof Blog Retrieved November 18, 2008. http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2008/06/on-wednesday-th.html

Greely, J. (1989, May 29). Alaska over the Barrels: The Spills and Spoils of Big Oil. The Nation, 248, 721.

Jasanoff, S. (2006) "Transparency in Public Science: Purposes, Reasons, Limits." Law and Contemporary Problems 69.3, 21.

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