Update on Climate Change Tort Litigation

Posted on June 29, 2012 by David Buente

The body of caselaw rejecting climate change tort claims seeking judicially-imposed restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, which I reviewed in a prior post on January 3, 2012, continues to grow.  That post predicted that (i) none of these suits were likely to succeed, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding last year in Connecticut et al. v. American Electric Power Co. et al. (“AEP”) that common law “nuisance” claims seeking such restrictions are displaced by the Clean Air Act, but nevertheless (ii) plaintiffs would continue to repackage and pursue the claims in different courts under different common law labels.  Both predications have proved accurate.

Two of the cases summarized in that post, Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al. and Alec L. et al. v. Jackson et al., have since been dismissed by the presiding district courts.  In Comer, where a group of Mississippi landowners sued scores of national electric utilities and other companies for damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, claiming that the defendants’ greenhouse gas emissions constituted a common law “nuisance,” the court held that the claims were preempted by the Clean Air Act and, further, that they presented non-justiciable political questions and plaintiffs lacked standing.  In Alec L., where a group of plaintiffs sued several federal agencies under the “public trust” doctrine, seeking an order mandating greenhouse gas regulations, the court likewise held that the claims could not be recognized as a matter of federal law and, in any event, would be displaced by the Clean Air Act.  A third case, Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. et al., remains pending before the Ninth Circuit, following the district court’s dismissal of the complaint on grounds that the “nuisance” claims were non-justiciable and plaintiffs lacked standing. 

In addition, “public trust” claims have now been filed in nearly all fifty states.  Some of these take the form, like Alec L., of common law tort litigation, with non-profit groups and individuals suing state officials and agencies in state courts, seeking injunctive orders directing the promulgation of greenhouse gas regulations.  Several of these cases have already been dismissed, including in Alaska and Oregon (both on political question and justiciability grounds); none has proceeded past the pleading stage.  Other claims take the form of administrative petitions, asking the relevant state agencies to issue greenhouse has regulations.  Many of these petitions, in more than 30 states so far, have already been denied; none has been granted.

The unanimous rejection of these claims should presumably, at some time, begin to deter the filing of further climate change litigation.  But that tipping point does not seem yet to have occurred.  At least for the immediate future, it appears likely that plaintiffs will continue to use – and, to many minds, distort – the common law tort system to pursue the political goal of greenhouse gas regulation. 



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