Two federal appeal courts (Fifth and Second Circuits) have issued decisions that will allow lawsuits to proceed that assert common law tort claims based on business contribution to climate change. Comer v. Murphy Oil USA Inc. is the second decision in the last two months to allow claims to proceed. Earlier in October, the Second Circuit allows a federal common law tort claim to proceed in Connecticut v. American Electric Power.
In Comer, Mississippi coastal residents, following hurricane Katrina, sued a number of energy, oil refining and chemical manufacturing companies claiming their greenhouse gas emissions contributed to climate change. The residents argue, that climate change increased the intensity of hurricane Katrina which led to massive damages along the cost.
A key distinguishing factor between the Comer and Connecticut is that the plaintiffs rely upon different legal theories to present their cases. In Connecticut it was based purely on federal common law tort claims. In Comer, the Mississippi residents grounded their claims in state common law theories of nuisance, trespass and negligence. After these decisions, it appears either federal or state law claims can proceed.
It is important to note that another federal district court (Northern District of California) in the case of Native Village of Kivalina v Exxon Mobil Corp. dismissed a common law tort claim because the Court determined Plaintiffs failed to establish standing. However, district courts had dismissed similar claims that were later overturned by the appellate court decisions cited above. Certainly this decision will be appealed to the Ninth Circuit which means we will have three federal district courts weigh in on this question.
What are the implications of these decisions?
We are a long way from plaintiffs successfully collecting millions or even billions in damages from businesses for their greenhouse gas contribution to climate change. The two federal appeal courts have only determined that there is enough of an argument for plaintiffs to be allowed to proceed to trial or in other words, the plaintiffs have standing.
The legal standards for standing are much lower than what is required to be successful in winning a judgment. For example, tort claims must meet more stringent causation standards than are required to demonstrate standing. The Comer court found that plaintiffs had demonstrated sufficient causation. The Court said plaintiffs did not have to show that the defendants greenhouse gas emissions alone caused the damages suffered by plaintiffs. Rather, it is sufficient for standing that defendant’s emissions contributes to the injuries suffered.
While plaintiffs can now proceed to trial, there is certainly no guarantee of success. However, these two appellate decisions will certainly embolden many more to file suits against utilities, chemical manufacturers, refiners, etc. A flood of litigation is certainly on its way.
All this litigation creates significant uncertainty for the business community. If just one plaintiff is successful in securing damages, the risk of liability will be massive for businesses. All of this should be considered as the Senate continues to debate Climate Change legislation.