Posted on October 20, 2009 by Robert Wyman
Following on last month’s Second Circuit decision in Connecticut v. AEP, two recent climate change decisions show that the federal courts continue to grapple with whether to allow nuisance suits against emitters of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). It will likely take some time — and a trip to the Supreme Court — before this area of the law is settled.
Just last week in Comer v. Murphy Oil, the Fifth Circuit gave the green light to a class action brought by property owners along the Mississippi Gulf Coast against oil and chemical companies and utilities. Plaintiffs’ alleged that GHG emissions from the defendants’ operations contributed to global warming, heated the oceans, raised sea levels and made Hurricane Katrina stronger than it would have been. The court held that the plaintiffs had Article III standing to assert state law nuisance and trespass claims for the resulting damage to their property and that the political question doctrine did not apply to this “ordinary tort suit.”
On September 30 the Northern California district court hearing Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil went the other way and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The court found that the Eskimo village who brought the suit could not establish that the threat to its existence from rising sea levels was “fairly traceable”
to the defendants’ GHG emissions and thus lacked standing. The court also found that the plaintiffs’ federal common law nuisance suit intruded on the separate political branches as it “seeks to impose liability and damages on a scale unlike any prior environmental pollution case . . . .”
Both cases cited AEP, where the Court rejected similar standing and political question challenges and allowed the plaintiffs, including eight states, to sue a group of electric power companies. The Fifth circuit lauded AEP’s “careful analysis” of the political question doctrine and sharply criticized the AEP trial court’s “serious error of law.” Judge Saundra Brown Anderson’s decision in Kivalina, on the other hand, found little to like in the AEP decision: “neither Plaintiffs nor AEP offers any guidance as to precisely what judicially discoverable and manageable standards are to be employed in resolving the claims at issue.”
So what can we take away from this trio of cases?
The appellate courts are clearly more comfortable with taking these cases than the trial courts. In each of these three cases, the District courts dismissed the suits. Odds are good that the Ninth Circuit in Kivalina will agree with her sister circuits making it a clean sweep.
Cases like Comer which assert state common law claims in diversity and seek only damages for past conduct are bound to run into less trouble than cases like AEP and Kivalina which assert federal common law claims and seek to enjoin future emissions OR ALLEGE potential future injury.
The latter cases more directly call into question the limits of the power of the federal judiciary to make common law, the traceability of the harm to the defendants’ emissions and the prerogatives of the legislative and federal branches and their ability to displace federal common law. On the other hand, state common law claims seeking damages for past injury are, as the Comer court said, just “‘ordinary tort suits.” The court applies easily discernable state law and is not asked to promulgate emissions standards.
It is worth remembering that the issues the courts in AEP, Comer and Kivalina grappled with are issues that are specific to the federal courts — federal common law, Article III standing, and federal separation of powers. It remains to be seen whether plaintiffs will assert these same cases in the state courts and avoid the uncertainty that will continue to exist in the federal system for some time.
However interesting the procedural issues presented by these cases might be, they are nothing in comparison to the complex and difficult issues presented by the merits of these cases. Liability, causation and damages still must be proven.
Finally, the green light given to the federal judiciary by the Second and Fifth Circuits, combined with the EPA’s recent steps to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act, will place additional pressure on Congress and the relevant stakeholders to pass a comprehensive climate change law. If not, federal courts (and juries) could soon be in the business of climate change regulation.