updated 2/2/2006 7:50:36 PM ET 2006-02-03T00:50:36

A federal judge tentatively approved a $1.075 billion agreement between Exxon Mobil Corp. and thousands of service station dealers that sued the company, settling a 14-year fight that also went to the Supreme Court.

U.S. District Court Judge Alan Gold on Wednesday gave preliminary approval of the settlement, in which Exxon also agreed to end opposition to the dealers' claims.

The two sides reached the agreement in December, and Gold is scheduled to issue a final ruling April 5.

"This is an extraordinary achievement for the dealers," said Miami attorney Eugene Stearns, who represented the dealers at trial and on appeal. "After 14 years of litigation, Exxon has exhausted its appeals and has finally realized that its continued opposition in the claims process is fruitless."

Miller said the settlement will speed up the process of putting the money in the hands of the dealers.

Exxon spokeswoman Prem Nair called the settlement "a business judgment."

"ExxonMobil has always contested liability in this lawsuit, but our appeals have been denied, and this settlement is payment of a legal obligation," she said.

The case against the Irving, Texas-based company began in 1991 when the service stations accused the company of failing to provide promised discounts for wholesale motor fuel and fraudulently hiding its failure to pay.

A jury found in favor of the dealers in 2001 and ordered Exxon to pay $500 million, but the company appealed that verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Exxon's last appeal this past June, by which time the payment had increased to more than $1 billion with interest.

The settlement came as a court-appointed official was in the process of assessing the claims of the more than 10,000 service station owners involved in the suit.

Exxon agreed to make the payment to a court-appointed financial institution that will hold the funds while each individual claim is evaluated.

Exxon and Mobil corporations merged in 1999 and have become the world's largest publicly traded oil company. Last week, Exxon announced that its 2005 profits topped $36.13 billion _ the highest ever for a U.S. Company.

On the Net:

Law firm Web site: http://www.exxondealerclassaction.com

Exxonmobil: http://www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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