A judge has ruled that the Exxon Corp. and its shipping subsidiary are liable for all actual damages caused by the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, which created America's worst spill in Alaska last year.

"Exxon Shipping Corp. and Exxon Corp. are strictly liable without regard to fault for all damages which are compensable under (Alaska statutes)," ruled state Superior Court Judge Brian Shortell in an order signed Wednesday.Compensable damages include property damage, loss of income and other economic harm. The ruling represented a victory for the state of Alaska, fishermen, native villagers, seafood processors, environmentalists and others suing Exxon in state court, and lawyers called it the most important ruling since the suits were filed.

"It is a significant ruling," said Barbara Herman, Alaska assistant attorney general and chief of the state oil spill litigation team. "It resolves a big part of the litigation. It certainly means we don't have to worry about liability."

"The court decided there's liability," said Melvin Belli, a San Francisco lawyer representing several hundred plaintiffs. "Now let's get on with a trial and determine damages."

An Exxon spokesman had no comment on the ruling and whether Exxon would appeal.

The ruling did not address the amount of damages or the issue of punitive damages, but only whether Exxon could be held liable for actual damages caused by the spill.

Nor did the court address the issue of blame, saying it doesn't matter under Alaska's strict liability law.