All posts tagged 'Comer'

The Top 6 at 12: Highlights of the Top Climate Change Legal Stories in the Second Half of 2013

January 1, 2014 00:01
by J. Wylie Donald

2013 has drawn to a close; here is our take on the top six climate change legal stories in the last six months.
 
1.  Climate Change Assessments - Blockbuster legislation may have been evaded once more but that has not stopped those in the trenches. Assessments of climate change risk are becoming more routine. For example, the September 2013 Record of Decision for the Gowanus Canal Superfund Site required assessment of “periods of high rainfall, including future rainfall increases that may result from climate change” in implementing certain aspects of the cleanup remedy.  Another example was provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which in November required in its second round of community block grants for disaster relief that prospective grantees consider in their Comprehensive Risk Analysis “a broad range of information and best available data, including forward-looking analyses of risks to infrastructure sectors from climate change and other hazards, such as the Northeast United States Regional Climate Trends and Scenarios from the U.S. National Climate Assessment, the Sea Level Rise Tool for Sandy Recovery, or comparable peer-reviewed information."  Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission looked at climate change with regard to its September draft generic environmental impact statement for the long-term continued storage of spent nuclear fuel. 

2.  Low Carbon Fuel Standards - In Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey the Ninth Circuit reversed several district court rulings limiting under the “dormant Commerce clause” the California Air Resources Board’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.  Although the Commerce clause of the Constitution, U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 3. “does not explicitly control the several states,” it "has long been understood to have a ‘negative’ aspect that denies the States the power unjustifiably to discriminate against or burden the interstate flow of articles of commerce.’” Rocky Mountain at 31 (citation omitted). California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard supported carbon dioxide emission reduction “by reducing the carbon intensity [i.e., the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of energy produced] of transportation fuels that are burned in California.”  It thus potentially burdened producers of ethanol in the Midwest and petroleum producers outside California, but that did not matter.  Specifically, the court held that the LCFS was not facially impermissibly discriminatory in favor of ethanol, was not improperly extraterritorial and did not discriminate against petroleum fuels.  Accordingly, California is still on its path to a reduction in the carbon intensity of its fuels by 10% by 2020, as mandated by the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act.

3.  The Cost of the Grid - On November 14, the Arizona Corporation Commission ruled that Arizona's net metering program should spread the cost of maintaining a reliable grid among all of Arizona Public Service's customers, including its rooftop solar customers. Up to that point rooftop solar customers were paid for the electricity they provided to the grid at retail rates, without any adjustment for the cost of the grid. The Commission concluded that this resulted in a "cost shift" from customers that were paying for the grid, to rooftop solar customers, who weren't.  APS put on a good case demonstrating that rooftop solar customers were substantially benefitting from the grid by drawing power at night, during cloudy weather and during the periods of daylight when solar power production did not exceed the customer's needs. Many have criticized solar power as unfairly subsidized. In Arizona at least, one of those subsidies is being addressed.

4.  New Carbon Dioxide Emission Standards - Following over 2.5 million comments, EPA rescinded its proposed rule governing carbon dioxide emissions from new coal-fired power plants.  In its place it proposed on September 20 a rule setting CO2 emission standards for new large natural gas power plants (1,000 lbs/MW-hr), new small natural gas power plants (1,100 lbs/MW-hr), and new coal-fired power plants (1,100 lbs/MW-hr).  From our perspective, the most significant facet of this new rule is that it actually will apply to plants that are being built.  The withdrawn proposed rule only applied to new coal plants, which EPA concluded would not be built anyway before 2030.  Equally significant, as pointed out in EPA’s news release  on the proposal, is that “EPA has initiated outreach to a wide variety of stakeholders that will help inform the development of emission guidelines for existing power plants.”

5.  The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – The IPCC’s Working Group I issued The Physical Science Basis, its part of the Fifth Assessment Report.  Working Groups II and III will publish in 2014.  Among other things WG I concluded:  "Unequivocal evidence from in situ observations and ice core records shows that the atmospheric concentrations of important greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides have increased over the last few centuries."  "The temperature measurements in the oceans show a continuing increase in the heat content of the oceans.  Analyses based on measurements of the Earth's radiative budget suggest a small positive energy imbalance that serves to increase the global heat content of the Earth system.  Observations from satellites and in situ measurements show a trend of significant reductions in the mass balance of most land ice masses and in Arctic sea ice. The ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide is having a significant effect on the chemistry of sea water."  But if one remains skeptical, this consensus view of the world’s leading climate scientists should not cause one alarm, the climate change skeptics have not thrown in the towel.  For example, according to one website, “climate science as proclaimed by the IPCC is a morass where what is scientific knowledge cannot be easily separated from speculation and what is wrong.”  One won't find seafarers plying the Northern Sea Route in the skeptic camp, however.  Russia logged a record year of transits in 2013 (over 200), up from just 4 in 2010. 

6.  Climate Change Liability Lawsuits - For the first time since 2005, when Comer v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance was filed, there is no climate change liability lawsuit on the docket anywhere. All have been defeated. Comer was the last to succumb, with its opportunity to file a petition for certiorari expiring on or about August 14.  The IPCC Fifth Assessment establishes climate change is not going away, but we will have to wait to see if anyone is going to attempt to make someone pay for it.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Regulation | Solar Energy | Utilities | Year in Review

Top 6 at 12: Highlights of the Top Climate Change Stories in the Second Half of 2012

December 31, 2012 11:59
by J. Wylie Donald

2012 has drawn to a close.  We chronicle here six of the most significant stories on the climate change front in the last six months.  For those looking for hope that government is taking action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, the focus is on California, where cap-and-trade stepped into reality with California's first emissions auction.  Nationally and internationally regulation is at a standstill or going backward.  In the courts, the climate change liability plaintiffs were pounded again as the Ninth Circuit confirmed the dismissal of Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp.  Responding to climate change, however, is a different story.  Superstorm Sandy was a wakeup call on adaptation and the impacts of extreme weather; the National Flood Insurance Program managed to obtain statutory authority to include climate change in its considerations.

1.  Superstorm Sandy –  Climatologists are confident that the changing climate will lead to more frequent and more severe storms.  Sandy, following Hurricane Irene the previous year, delivered on both predictions.   A nine-foot storm surge at Battery Park.  Transformers exploding and putting Manhattan into darkness.  The Hoboken PATH station  submerged.  $50 billion in damage.  Superstorm Sandy set records and was completely consistent with the concerns of proponents of climate change mitigation and adaptation.  Did it have anything to do with climate change or was it simply a chance confluence of events?  The weather pattern was unusual.  There was a hurricane (albeit fading), coupled with a nor’easter, intersecting with an arctic high pressure front, under a full moon.  Individually, those are independent of climate change.  But there was also a record lack of sea ice, which has a measured and observed effect on global atmospheric circulation, which could result in severe weather coming together more severely.  So quite possibly Sandy is a result of climate change.  More important than the academic debate, however, is the impact on adaptation.  Regardless of one’s views on climate change, Sandy demonstrated that a major metropolitan area is vulnerable to extreme weather.  Steps will be taken to flood-proof subways, bury electric lines, raise seawalls, improve evacuation plans  and emergency response,  etc.  All of these are part of the steps needed to adapt to climate change.   Whether it is acknowledged as linked to climate change or not (but see Bloomberg Business Week cover following Sandy:   “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!”), adaptation is going to happen. 

2.  Presidential Election - Climate change was an important part of the campaign:  "The Obama-Biden cap-and-trade policy will require all pollution credits to be auctioned, and proceeds will go to investments in a clean energy future, habitat protections, and rebates and other transition relief for families."  The 2008 election campaign that is. It was a completely different position in 2012. Or maybe not different at all.  No one could tell because nobody was talking about it.  Even Sandy wasn't enough to propel climate change into the debate in the last week of campaigning.

3.  Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil - The last filed of the original quartet (American Electric Power, General Motors, Comer, and Kivalina) of climate change nuisance cases, Kivalina finally made it to a federal appellate court, where in September it met the same fate as its brethren:  dismissal affirmed.  Plaintiffs asked for rehearing.  The Ninth Circuit wasn't interested.  As of this writing, the only case left is Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, which is on appeal following its dismissal last March (for the second time) by the Southern District of Mississippi.  According to that court, plaintiffs lose for a wide variety of reasons:  standing, political question doctrine, res judicata, collateral estoppel, displacement, statute of limitations and proximate cause.   

4.  Cap-and-trade - California, alone among the fifty states, instituted its multi-industry full-fledged cap-and-trade program auctions in November.  All of its allowances for 2013 were sold at a price slightly above the mandated floor price of $10/ton.  Regulators and environmental groups hailed the auction as a success; some business groups were less enthusiastic.  The California Chamber of Commerce sued the California Air Resources Board to invalidate the auctions.  Meanwhile, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast continues with its allowances trading at the floor price, and with less than 2/3 of its allowances selling in its August and December auctions.  Some commentary concludes that it is time for RGGI to shut down as its CO2 emission goals have been met.    From where we sit, RGGI's success or failure can't be judged until its carbon trading is done in connection with  a robust economy.  The world economic malaise suppresses business, and with it, carbon dioxide emissions.  California may face the same issue.  

5.  National Flood Insurance Program Reform - Could a poisonously partisan Congress vote for this: 

(1) IN GENERAL- The Council shall consult with scientists and technical experts, other Federal agencies, States, and local communities to--(A) develop recommendations on how to--(i) ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the best available climate science to assess flood risks; and (ii) ensure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses the best available methodology to consider the impact of--
(I) the rise in the sea level; ..."?  

Not the Congress we know.  Or so we thought.  Somehow, somewhere, someone put this into a draft, which made it into and out of a committee, ended up on the floor of both houses, survived two votes and came out as an enrolled bill for the president's signature.  The president signed it into law in July.  This was part of the miscellaneous section of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act  (aka the Transportation and Student Loan Bill), which may explain how this occurred.  In any event, climate change considerations are statutorily mandated as part of the NFIP.  42 USC § 4101a(d)(1).  We can expect a report by July 6, 2013.  Id. § 4101a(d)(1)(B).  Who'd have thunk? 

6.  Global GHG Regulation - COP-18, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, wrapped up in Doha, Qatar in the middle of December widely panned as ineffective.   While it extended to 2020 the Kyoto Protocol addressing global greenhouse gas emissions, major nations (Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand) dropped out, and the United States continued to refuse to participate.  Thus, only about fifteen percent of global emissions are now covered by the protocol (the EU and other European nations, as well as Australia, continue to support the protocol).   Developing nations (whose emissions are not restricted by Kyoto) had hoped to obtain commitments for funding "climate finance" of $100 billion, but that did not occur either.  One can see parallels between the Kyoto Protocol and the Western Climate Initiative and RGGI.  In all three members have dropped out and the commitment to address greenhouse gas emissions waivers. 
 
The fiscal cliff was the focus at the end of 2012; climate change got short shrift.  2013 may establish that that was short-sighted.

No En Banc Appeal in Kivalina; So What's Next for Climate Change LItigation?

December 8, 2012 22:18
by J. Wylie Donald

When we discuss climate change litigation with colleagues or acquaintances unfamiliar with it, they are always a little incredulous.  “The plaintiffs allege what?  How could you prove that?  There's no way they can win.”  Courts, however, cannot rule from their impressions; instead, they must parse arguments and facts and explicate the legal reasoning that supports shutting climate change cases out of the courtroom.  We have addressed in this blog many of those decisions as the climate change cases have wound their way up the appellate ladder.  That statement-of-reasons rule, however, does not apply when a court is being asked to grant rehearing en banc.  Then a judge can just say, “I’m not interested.”  And the case is done.

That happened at the end of November in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. when the Ninth Circuit issued its denial (see attached) of plaintiffs' petition for rehearing:  “The full court has been advised of the petition for rehearing en banc, and no judge of the court has requested a vote on the petition for rehearing en banc.  Appellants’ petition for rehearing en banc is DENIED.”  Unless the plaintiffs file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, and the Court accepts it (which we think unlikely with no circuit court split and the dismissal being a fairly simple extension of the Court's decision in American Electric Power), Kivalina is done.  That means that there is no federal common law of nuisance relevant to greenhouse gas emissions whether a plaintiff seeks injunctive relief or damages.  The federal Clean Air Act displaces the claim in both instances. 

Two slim reeds remain for plaintiffs in the first wave of climate change litigation.  First, they need to prevail on an appeal before the Fifth Circuit in Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., which will require overcoming over half a dozen independent bases for dismissal found by the trial court.  Or second, they must succeed on a state-law-based theory of nuisance.  As we have noted recently, the Clean Air Act is likely to be found to preempt such claims. 

In light of the string of defeats in American Electric Power, Comer and Kivalina for plaintiffs, we went looking to see where the climate change plaintiffs' lawyers were going next.  The websites of the lead Comer and Kivalina lawyers, Gerald Maples and Matt Pawa, were not helpful.  However, journalist Andrew Longstreth didn’t rest on the websites; he reached out directly to Messrs. Pawa and Maples. Here is the future he found: 

"Pawa said that he and his co-counsel in the Kivalina case are discussing their options, which include asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal or filing a new case in state court that asserts state common law claims. Pawa likened the current state of climate change litigation to the early stages of suits against cigarette makers and companies with asbestos liability. Before plaintiffs' lawyers in those cases were able to win judgments and settlements, they were stymied by defense arguments. "We haven't exhausted our theories or our efforts," he said.

As stated above, the Supreme Court and state law nuisance paths do not seem likely to succeed.  Mr. Maples suggested a different path:

"Future success in climate change litigation, he said, may depend on whether state attorneys general get involved, as they did in the tobacco litigation of the 1990s. With home insurance premiums rising as a result of climate change, Maples said, the litigation could become attractive to state AGs, who like consumer protection cases.  'If you can't afford insurance, that's almost like not affording food,'"

So, is climate change litigation going to take a new turn and become an issue about consumer protection and insurance rates?  After reviewiing the Fourth Amended Complaint in Comer, we suggested in 2011 that this theory was something that bore watching.  Here is the theory in action as alleged in Comer:  “[Defendants' greenhouse gas emissions] put Plaintiffs' property at greater risk of flood and storm damage, and dramatically increase Plaintiffs' insurance costs." (Fourth Amended Complaint ¶ 37.)   Thus, with the demise of federal common law claims, consumer protection law claims may be the next wave. 

20121127 Order (denying rehearing en banc), Kivalina v. ExxonMobil.pdf (34.55 kb)

Carbon Emissions | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance

Virginia Supreme Court Stands Firm on Rehearing Climate Change Insurance Case: AES v. Steadfast is (Re-) Affirmed

April 20, 2012 17:12
by J. Wylie Donald

The Virginia Supreme Court surprised us today.  It issued its opinion (attached) on rehearing in AES Corp. v. Steadfast Insurance Co., hardly changed from its original decision finding that the allegations in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. did not constitute an occurrence.  The concurrence, however, is substantially altered, and it is there that one can get a taste of the mischief to which this decision may lead.

We have blogged this subject on several occasions.  In a nutshell, AES sought coverage for climate change liability claims asserted by claimant Inupiat Eskimos, who alleged that AES’s (and others’) carbon dioxide emissions were the cause of the excessive erosion of their community on a spit of land north of the Arctic Circle.  AES tendered the claim to Steadfast, who accepted the defense subject to a reservation of rights, and then filed a declaratory judgment action against AES in Virginia.  Following dueling motions for summary judgment, Steadfast prevailed before the trial court.  AES took an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.  Notwithstanding specific allegations of negligence by AES, the Court concluded:   “[e]ven if AES were negligent and did not intend to cause the damage that occurred, the gravamen of Kivalina’s nuisance claim is that the damages it sustained were the natural and probable consequences of AES’s intentional emissions.”    In sum, “If an insured knew or should have known that certain results would follow from his acts or omissions, there is no 'occurrence' within the meaning of a comprehensive general liability policy.”  Thus, the trial court was affirmed.

AES sought rehearing because three authorities on which the Court relied established that there was no occurrence where the insured knew to a “substantial certainty” or “substantial probability” that injury would occur.  As the Kivalina plaintiffs made no such “substantial certainty” allegation, AES asserted the Court’s holding was in error.

We learned today that the Court disagreed.  Well, actually, we don’t know if the Court disagreed.  There is no mention of “substantial certainty” or “substantial probability” although the Court continues to cite the exact same authorities.  One could just as reasonably conclude that the Court felt AES’s argument simply was not relevant.  Virginia law, according to the Court is as follows:  “For coverage to be precluded under a CGL policy because there was no occurrence, it must be alleged that the result of an insured’s intentional act was more than a possibility; it must be alleged that the insured subjectively intended or anticipated the result of its intentional act or that objectively, the result was a natural or probable consequence of the intentional act.“  The Kivalina plaintiffs did not allege that AES intended the erosion of the spit, so the allegations had to be read to demonstrate that the erosion in Alaska was a natural or probable consequence of the emissions of carbon dioxide from AES’s plants’ emissions somewhere in the lower 48.  From where we sit, there seems a great distance from the alleged damage in Alaska being a “substantial certainty” or being a “probable consequence.” 

We note a trial court's recent ruling (attached) in another climate change liability case, Comer v. Murphy Oil:, where the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the climate change claims: 

The assertion that the defendants’ emissions combined over a period of decades or centuries with other natural and man-made gases to cause or strengthen a hurricane and damage personal property is precisely the type of remote, improbable, and extraordinary occurrence that is excluded from liability.

So one court rules that allegations of climate change effects are extraordinary, improbable and remote, while another rules they are to be taken as stated.  Regardless, the Court's decision should resolve AES’s quest for coverage from Steadfast.  Other Kivalina defendants will take note and ensure that Virginia is struck from possible litigation venues for their coverage claims.

Will this decision have major implications?  Yes, but probably not in the climate change space.  It is one decision, on one issue, on one set of facts.  We will be very surprised if future plaintiffs do not take note of the decision and ensure that their pleadings more adequately state negligence claims so as to bring insurance money to the table (assuming at some point they can get past motions to dismiss). 

Other jurisdictions have their own jurisprudence on “occurrence” and they are not likely to mirror Virginia’s.  We feel that we can say that with some authority based on the statements made by Justice Mims in his concurrence.  Justice Mims felt that Virginia law left the Court with no option but to find there was no occurrence:  “under the reasoning of our precedents, allegations of negligence and allegations of accident must be mutually exclusive.  … Because “accident” is synonymous with “occurrence,” which is what these CGL policies cover, I concur with the majority that our precedents require us to conclude that they do not provide coverage for AES’s allegedly negligent acts.”  But that leads to a real problem:  “I also must acknowledge the broader effect that this conclusion, and the underlying case law that compels it, may have on other CGL policies in which the insured risk is defined as an “occurrence.  Our precedents may have painted us into a jurisprudential corner.”   Can it be that commercial general liability policies in Virginia do not cover negligence?  Stand by.  This is sure to be the subject of future litigation.

20120420 AES v. Steadfast (Va. Apr. 20, 2012).pdf (42.88 kb)

20120320 Comer v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., Order of Dismissal (S.D Miss).pdf (172.02 kb)

Carbon Emissions | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance

Connecticut v. AEP - The End Is Very Near

September 21, 2011 23:38
by J. Wylie Donald

Not with a bang, but with a whimper. So (we predict) will be the resolution of Connecticut v. American Electric Power, of Supreme Court provenance and now remanded to the Second Circuit. And it is not because we have inside information. Rather, it is because the plaintiffs have asked to be dismissed.

On September 2 counsel for the State of New York, on behalf of all of the governmental and public interest group plaintiffs, wrote the clerk of the Second Circuit and requested: 

"These appellants have decided to withdraw their complaints, ... and would like to request that the Court remand this case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York that they may do so."

Plaintiffs assert that they may do so "as of right" because Defendants have not answered. Somehow, we do not think Defendants will raise an objection.
 
This result was not difficult to foresee (although, to be candid, we did not). Combatting climate change is no longer a top priority with the public or with government. In a time of pinched government budgets, and where regulation of CO2 emissions is proceeding, plaintiffs could abandon their claims and declare victory.

Defendants will claim victory on the merits, which is accurate but not the complete story.  The federal common law of nuisance will not be a basis for a successful climate change suit (notwithstanding creative arguments by the Kivalina plaintiffs before the Ninth Circuit that the Supreme Court's decision should be limited only to cases where injunctive relief is sought, not to damages cases). However, state public nuisance claims were not foreclosed, and the Second Circuit's ruling that the political question doctrine does not bar these claims still stands.  Remember also that while the Fifth Circuit Comer decision was vacated, that was on procedural grounds.  In other words, there is no merits based decision declaring that the appellate panel was wrong.

It is anybody's guess where the next climate change liability damages suit will be filed, by whom, and under what theories.  Notwithstanding two climate change decisions by the Supreme Court, the legal landscape is not even close to finished.

20110902 Letter withdrawing by plaintiffs in AEP v Connecticut (American Electric Power).PDF (45.20 kb)

Climate Change Litigation

Ceres and a Series of Serious Thoughts About the NAIC Climate Disclosures - Part III

September 19, 2011 08:15
by J. Wylie Donald

This is the last of three parts concerning Ceres’ recently released Climate Risk Disclosures by Insurers:  Evaluating Insurer Responses to the NAIC Climate Disclosure Survey.   We already have looked at the first two Recommendations to Regulators.  Today we finish with number 3:  more clarity in disclosure expectations.  Id. at 51. 

It is always easier to make apples-to-apples comparisons when everyone is speaking the same language.  Uniform and detailed disclosure requirements would help achieve that goal.  However, the down side of specifying what will be disclosed is that it assumes the specifier knows all that needs to be identified.  The scariest part of climate change is that we probably do not yet know how all the changes will interact.  Correlated risk is a prime example. 

IRMI describes “correlated risk profiles” as those “that move in concert when affected by the same set of stimuli.”  Insurers run from correlated risk and the Ceres report rightly poses a troubling concern in that regard:  “If … climate change has the potential to introduce correlated risks across previously uncorrelated assets and to drive market values in ways that cannot be predicted from historical trends, the insurance industry may be poorly positioned to meet its investment objectives.”  Climate Risk Disclosures at 39.  According to the report, few companies recognize the potential for correlated losses across their business.  Id. at 43.  And the ones that do say no more than that climate change will increase insured losses and may negatively impact the businesses in which insurers invest.  Id.   We don‘t think that this is news to those who did not specifically mention correlated risks in their submissions. 

What we take from all this is that no one yet knows in a meaningful way where the climate change correlated risks lie.  Or they are keeping mum (see our first posting on the Ceres report concerning competitive advantage).  So the question for a regulator is the following:  Is one better off with answers that are less-constrained and potentially more revealing, or is more specificity in the guidance more helpful?  If one is a regulator who knows all the questions that should be asked, one should opt for more specificity.  But if one does not, then one might support providing unstructured disclosure opportunities.

The Ceres report, of course, is not all about recommendations, but we have gone on for too long to delve further.  Before we close, however, we did want to address the need for stronger research.

The Corporate Liability section attracted our particular focus, as climate change liability suits and their insurance have been a central feature of the blog.  Those of us following this subject drop the names of the three liability damages suits, Comer, General Motors and Kivalina, and the insurance suit, Steadfast, like they were business cards. 

The statement that got our dander up was this:  "Since the first suits were filed in 2003, their numbers have rapidly proliferated—more than 120 suits were filed in 2010 alone, nearly two-thirds of them in the U.S."  Id. at 11.  This is an accurate paraphrase of its source, a sentence in a short article published by the Geneva Association.   The problem is that the source, at best, is misleading.  While there may have been 120 climate change suits filed in 2010, as demonstrated by the comprehensive set of charts kept by the Climate Change group at Arnold & Porter LLP there were none filed that were seeking damages under common law theories.   Those suits continued to be the three:  Comer, GM and Kivalina.

We will be the first in line to agree that the insurance industry should be concerned about climate change liability suits.  But that concern has not yet had to focus on 120 climate change liability suits, because they have not been filed yet.

That being said, the Ceres report brings to the fore statements by representatives of a multi-trillion dollar industry that is in the eye of the climate change storm.  Those statements otherwise might languish in some regulator’s dark bottom drawer.  The report is a valuable resource; we look forward to next year’s reprise.

Climate Change Litigation | Insurance | Regulation

Comer Resurgens: Life After American Electric Power v. Connecticut

July 7, 2011 13:23
by J. Wylie Donald

We thought last January, when the Supreme Court denied a writ of mandamus, that the long saga of Ned Comer through the courts had finally come to an end.  We were wrong.  At the end of May, the case, Comer, et al. v. Murphy's Oil USA, et al. (attached), was refiled in the Southern District of Mississippi.  Although predating the Supreme Court's June decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, one could be excused for concluding that it was filed afterward as it relegates federal common law to a sentence and instead is all about state law causes of action.

But before we get into the resurgent Comer, we thought we would point out a June paper published by the Geneva Association, an insurance industry think tank.  One of the industries most affected by climate change is insurance. In Why Insurers Should Focus on Climate Risk Issues, Chief Climate Product Officer, Lindene Patton, outlines some of the risks and opportunities she perceives.   Her perspective is particularly worth considering as her employer, Zurich Financial Services, faces climate change issues across a broad spectrum of activities. (Ms. Patton notes, however, that the positions in the paper are hers alone.)

Ms. Patton's views are insightful:  "society at large appears increasingly underinsured for the impacts of climate change at the time of its greatest need."  And they are ominous:  "Unless global societal risk management of climate change improves, the mismatch between the loss exposure and monies needed to cover economic loss associated with climate change-related severe weather events and other impacts will only become more extreme."  The solution she calls for is for insurance companies to take the lead to overcome the current "governance gap with respect to climate change policy."  Even without leadership, important social decisions can be made if the right price signals (i.e., premiums) are sent. Such signals can lead to "cogent risk management decision-taking" and assist in the spreading and management of climate change risks. An example of such price signals from an earlier period are the fire proofing of much of America as the result of the insurance industry's support of fire codes and the underwriting to go with them.

The alternative to leadership in the marketplace is what Ms. Patton refers to as the frictional costs of litigation. In some cases those costs can be trivial, such as occurred with Y2K. In other cases, the outcomes can be devastating -- think asbestos and tobacco, on which insurers have paid, by some estimates, $150 billion and $750 billion respectively.

Driving litigation in the climate change sphere is the relatively unknown fact of "a trend of decreasing percentage of insured loss when calculated as a percentage of damages from extreme weather events on an annualized basis."  Stated more simply, those harmed by hurricanes are not insured or are underinsured and the path to being made whole lies with a judge, not with an adjuster.

The litigation path is not set out in black and white. Yet. But there are areas that may be fruitful for plaintiffs. Ms. Patton identifies SEC disclosure rules, fractional allocation (market share) schemes, and de minimus liability regimes as potential routes for "activist judges to find liability associated with" greenhouse gas emissions.  Regardless of the theory du jour, the ongoing injuries and displacement caused by climate change "may ultimately end up over a number of years in dedicated, repeated efforts by plaintiffs to find a legal theory that 'sticks' as happened in tobacco or asbestos."

Which brings us back to Ned Comer and his protean and unvanquishable litigation.  All remember Hurricane Katrina; most will recall the lawsuit filed 20 days after Katrina made landfall.  In various iterations it sued insurance companies, mortgage lenders, oil companies, electric utilities, coal companies, and chemical companies; it alleged against all of the greenhouse-gas-emitting defendants responsibility for Katrina's "unprecedented" ferocity.  Its appellate travails are legend.  Following dismissal in the district court, and reinstatement by a Fifth Circuit panel, that decision was vacated when the Fifth Circuit accepted the case for en banc argument, and then dismissed the case when its quorum dissolved.  The petition for mandamus did not avail and everyone thought the case was gone.

Everyone, that is, except Ned Comer's lawyers.  On May 27, 2011 Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc. was re-filed.  It is a monstrous class action lawsuit with over 90 named corporate defendants - a crowd even larger than the earlier iterations of the case.  Like a Who's Who of particular industries, it alleges against classes of oil companies, utilities and coal companies, and chemical companies claims in three counts of public and private nuisance, trespass and negligence. But it also includes, almost as afterthoughts, a strict liability claim (¶ 36) and a conspiracy claim (¶ 41).  It concludes with a count for a declaratory judgment that federal law does not preempt state law claims.

Ms. Patton's frictional costs are here in vast numbers.  As is her recognition that it is injury rather than an interest in climate change policy that provides the litigation incentive:  "Plaintiffs do not ask this Court to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or change national policy regarding climate change. Instead, Plaintiffs seek legal redress for the damages caused by these Defendants."  (¶ 11).

Those damages are broad. 

"[Plaintiffs'] homes and property were destroyed by Katrina's destructive winds and storm surge, which effects were increased in frequency and intensity by Defendants' emissions of greenhouse gases." (¶ 18) 

"Plaintiffs' property also is damage[d] by sea level rise as a result of submersion and/or increased exposure to hurricanes. (¶ 19)

"Plaintiffs' insurance premiums for their coastal Mississippi property have risen dramatically, and the resale values of their homes and property values have plummeted."  (¶ 20)

The insurance premium allegation is thought-provoking.  Plaintiffs recognize that proving a particular defendant caused Hurricane Katrina will be difficult. Pleading in the alternative, they assert that the Defendants' greenhouse gas emissions "put Plaintiffs' property at greater risk of flood and storm damage, and dramatically increase Plaintiffs' insurance costs." (¶ 37) They link insurance company efforts to price climate change risk to increased premiums (Ms. Patton's risk-based price signals), and, because those "insurance costs attributable to global warming are distinct and quantifiable", they assert they are entitled to recovery. (¶¶ 38-40)  This theory of damages based on increased risk, rather than actual harm, bears watching.

Ms. Patton concludes, "the AEP case only addresses nuisance cases and does not address broader theories under tort liability law.  A verdict for the defendants on the nuisance issue may not arrest the flow of cases and associated defence costs.  The plaintiffs bar may still continue to file demands and claims for other types of tort damages."  We would go further. With apologies to Atlanta, Comer Resurgens demonstrates that the conditional "may" is being replaced by the declarative "will."

20110527 Comer v. Murphy's Oil (re-filed) Complaint.PDF (796.31 kb)

Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Greenhouse Gases | Insurance | Supreme Court

Supreme Court Denies Petition for Mandamus in Comer

January 10, 2011 12:59
by J. Wylie Donald

It does not get much more anti-climactic.  The Supreme Court today rejected the Comer v. Murphy Oil plaintiffs' request for a writ of mandamus.  It took only a short seven words to relegate the petition (as well as others) to the dustbin:  "The petitions for writs of mandamus are denied."  So ends a saga that was initiated with Hurrican Katrina, expressed in a complaint, dismissed under the political question doctrine, reversed by the Fifth Circuit, accepted for en banc review, reinstated as dismissed when the Fifth Circuit's quorum dissolved, and ultimately ended up on the Supreme Court's docket.  Then it ended, not with a bang, nor even a whimper.   
 
The questions as framed by the plaintiffs were thoughtful:

    Where the litigants have perfected a right to an appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, does the Circuit Court have a duty to render a decision?

    When an en banc court loses its quorum after granting rehearing but before hearing argument en banc, can the remaining judges dismiss an appeal of right without a decision on the merits?

    When an en banc court loses its quorum before deciding an appeal on rehearing en banc, does the
    original panel maintain control over the case?

I will be frank, I don't have a clue about the answers to these meaty questions (and I suspect there will be a few law review notes and articles attempting to intuit one).  But I do have some thoughts on the significance of this ruling with respect to climate change litigation.

First, it was an expensive defeat for the plaintiffs' bar.  Gerald Maples, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, estimated he had spent $3 million on the case even before the en banc and Supreme Court appeals.  (Maples Australian Interview).  I assume that even for the plaintiffs' bar, $3 million is not chump change.  While tobacco litigation required numerous attempts before plaintiffs finally beat Big Tobacco, tobacco plaintiffs never had to contend with problems of causation anywhere near the complexity faced by climate change plaintiffs.  As stated by the district court in Comer:

    I foresee daunting evidentiary problems for anyone who undertakes to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, the degree to which global warming is caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses; the degree to which the actions of any individual oil company, any individual chemical company, or the collective action of these corporations contribute, through the emission of greenhouse gasses, to global warming; and the extent to which the emission of greenhouse gasses by these defendants, through the phenomenon of global warming, intensified or otherwise affected the weather system that produced Hurricane Katrina.  Comer v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., Civ. A. No. 1:05 CV 436-LTD-RHW, 2006 WL 1066645, *4 (S.D. Miss. Feb. 23, 2006).

Conversely, however, plaintiffs' counsel may be encouraged notwithstanding the loss in Comer.  There are presently two appellate decisions on the merits on public nuisance climate change cases, Connecticut v. American Electric Power and Comer; both come out for the plaintiffs.  As we wrote in December, with the retirements of Justices Stevens and Souter, and the recusal of Justice Sotomayor, a 4-4 stalemate at the Supreme Court in Connecticut is a distinct possibility.  That, coupled with the panel decision in Comer, could send a message that climate change liability cases are worth bringing.  In that case, we will certainly see more such cases.

Second, the Tennessee Valley Authority is batting 1.000 in climate change appeals.  TVA filed papers supporting the petition for certiorari in Connecticut.  The Court accepted the petition.  And TVA opposed the request for mandamus in Comer, which was denied.  The same of course could be said of several other utlities in both litigations.  The difference being that when TVA speaks on the political question doctrine, it is the government itself asserting that it wishes to address climate change through the political process rather than through the courts.  In the appeal of Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, TVA did not join as an amicus.  Instead, the defendants drew the support of two Congressmen:  Lamar Smith, the Ranking Republican Member of the House Judiciary Committee, and James Sensenbrenner, Jr., the Ranking Republican of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.  (Kivalina Amicus Brief) Let us hope that the 50 years of congressional experience between them gives them some sway with the Ninth Circuit.

Last, can we read the tea leaves in Connecticut through the Comer lens?  The blogosphere is particularly harsh on the Fifth Circuit for its failure to solve its quorum problem.  Suggested solutions include bringing in a district court judge or a jurist from another circuit.  Instead, based on procedure the court nullified the case's only appellate merits ruling.  That seems a particularly harsh result on a topic of such significance, but it is only so if the Court affirms the Second Circuit and permits the appellate decision in Connecticut to survive. Is the rejection of Comer then, a case of precognition applicable to Connecticut?  By June we will have found out.

Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court


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