By Karen Savage
Amid a summer rife with climate-related disasters, the liability lawsuits came like an advancing flood, first Minnesota and Washington D.C. within days of each other in June, followed by Hoboken, Charleston, Delaware and Connecticut in rapid succession in September. Their suits have turned a summer of unrest into a quest to make fossil fuel companies pay for the damages caused by the burning of their products, joining a trend that began three years ago but evolving to match the circumstances of today.
This summer, extreme heat blanketed much of the Northeast, with seven states recording the hottest July on record. Wildfires have swept through the west, destroying homes, uprooting lives and searing the lungs of millions with unrelenting smoke. Residents in Louisiana and Alabama have faced a continuing barrage of hurricanes and storms, dumping unimaginable amounts of rain and misery.
Recovery will cost billions and that doesn’t include what’s needed to protect residents from future climate change-related disasters.
The latest round of lawsuits draws from the dozens filed across the country since 2017, but with a few new twists. They continue to charge fossil fuel companies with public nuisance for producing and marketing a dangerous product, but they increasingly allege the companies acted together to also violate state consumer fraud statutes. And for the first time, they have begun to include the industry’s largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), among the alleged culprits in deceiving the public.
“There is a very strong evidentiary basis for showing that these companies knew about the impacts of climate change and colluded to prevent the dissemination of that information,” said Jessica Wentz, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Nearly all the lawsuits have been filed in state courts, alleging state law violations. Fossil fuel companies have doggedly tried to have the cases moved to federal court, where they think they will have a better chance at getting them dismissed, but a string of appellate court rulings have pushed them back to state court. The companies have asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, which seems increasingly unlikely as the circuit courts have all issued similar rulings and the Supreme Court usually only intervenes at this point if the circuits have issued conflicting rulings.
Those decisions have likely encouraged the filing of more suits, a trend experts expect to continue.[Read more…]