Supreme Court

Whatever Happened to State Law Carbon Dioxide Liability Claims? Still No Music After Bell

October 27, 2013 10:30
by J. Wylie Donald

“Therefore, the Court declines to assert supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims which are dismissed without prejudice to their presentation in a state court action.”  So ends the last analytical paragraph in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 663 F. Supp. 2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009).  Thus, while plaintiffs’ federal common law carbon-dioxide-liability claims were extinguished on standing and political question grounds, state law claims could go forward should the plaintiffs choose to re-file.  Then, the Supreme Court decided American Electric Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut564 U.S. __ (2011), and held a set of different plaintiffs’ federal common law claims were displaced by the Clean Air Act.  The Court specifically declined to rule on state law claims of the type at issue in Kivalina:  “None of the parties have briefed preemption or otherwise addressed the availability of a claim under state nuisance law. We therefore leave the matter open for consideration on remand.”

Last fall we relied on Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, 903 F. Supp. 2d 314 (W.D. Pa. 2012), out of the Western District of Pennsylvania as support for the proposition that state law nuisance claims were futile – preemption by the Clean Air Act doomed such claims.  The Third Circuit's recent review, while reversing the trial court, has not upended our conclusion.

In Bell, 1500 neighbors of the 570 megawatt coal-fired Cheswick Generating Station operated by GenOn Power Midwest, L.P. became annoyed by ash and other contaminants allegedly settling on their property.  And so they brought a class action under Pennsylvania state tort law.  GenOn defended based on the comprehensive regulation of the Clean Air Act, which, it was asserted, preempted state law tort claims; the trial court agreed.

On appeal, however, broad preemption by the Clean Air Act was not accepted.  The Court of Appeals acknowledged the comprehensive program established by the Act.  But it also recognized that Congress had specifically provided for a citizens suit provision, 42 U.S.C. § 7604, and that the Act contained two "savings" clauses.  The first, the "citizen suit savings clause," provided:   "Nothing in this section shall restrict any right which any person (or class of persons) may have under any statute or common law to seek enforcement of any emission standard or limitation or to seek any other relief (including relief against the Administrator or a State agency)."  42 U.S.C. § 7604(e).  The second, the "states' rights savings clause," stated:  "Except as otherwise provided ... nothing in this chapter shall preclude or deny the right of any State or political subdivision thereof to adopt or enforce (1) any standard or limitation respecting emissions of air pollutants or (2) any requirement respecting control or abatement of air pollution ...."  42 U.S.C. § 7416.  Read together, a more restrictive state law could be enforced in a citizen suit.

This idea was consistent with the Cheswick Generating Station's permit:   "Nothing in this permit shall be construed as impairing any right or remedy now existing or hereafter created in equity, common law or statutory law with respect to air pollution, nor shall any court be deprived of such jurisdiction for the reason that such air pollution constitutes a violation of this permit."  

Could a citizen suit successfully address the ill-placed ash and contaminants?  The trial court said "no":  “Based on the extensive and comprehensive regulations promulgated by the administrative bodies which govern air emissions from electrical generation facilities, the Court finds and rules that to permit the common law claims would be inconsistent with the dictates of the Clean Air Act.”  But the Third Circuit said "yes." 

Its primary authority was the Supreme Court's 1987 decision in International Paper Co. v. Ouellette, 479 U.S. 481 (1987), a Clean Water Act case where Vermont plaintiffs asserted a (Vermont) common law nuisance suit in Vermont state court, where the pollution originated from a  New York facility.  To quote: 

The Ouellette Court found that the Clean Water Act's savings clauses clearly preserved some state law tort actions, but that the text of the clauses did not provide a definitive answer to the question of whether suits based on the law of the affected state were preempted. 479 U.S. at 492, 497. However, it found definitively that "nothing in the [Clean Water Act] bars aggrieved individuals from bringing a nuisance claim pursuant to the laws of the source State." Id. at 497 (emphasis in original). The Court reasoned that, "[b]y its terms the Clean Water Act allows States . . . to impose higher standards on their own point sources," and "this authority may include the right to impose higher common-law as well as higher statutory restrictions." Id. (internal citation omitted). The Court acknowledged that a source state's "nuisance law may impose separate standards and thus create some tension with the permit system," but explained that this "would not frustrate the goals of the Clean Water Act," because "a source only is required to look to a single additional authority, whose rules should be relatively predictable." Id. at 498-99. Thus, a suit by Vermont citizens would not be preempted if brought under the law of New York, the source state.

But, GenOn argued, the Clean Water Act and its savings clauses are distinguishable from the Clean Air Act and its savings clauses.  Not so said the court; "a textual comparison of the two savings clauses at issue demonstrates there is no meaningful difference between them."  Accordingly, the Bell plaintiffs, who brought suit as “Pennsylvania residents under Pennsylvania law against a source of pollution located in Pennsylvania,” were not preempted.

Now let’s return again to Kivalina.  The concurring opinion laid out the rule:   “Kivalina may pursue whatever remedies it may have under state law to the extent their claims are not preempted.”  Bell limits those claims.  Where Alaska natives sue in California a collection of greenhouse gas emitters from around the country, they would appear not to satisfy the requirement of emission-source-state-law-applies unless they are arguing that the nuisance rules of a score of jurisdictions must be considered.  In which case, their case falls apart for improper joinder.  And if they attempt to sue in multiple jurisdictions, they only amplify a fundamental flaw in their approach.  Whomever they sue has only contributed a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gases in either volume or over time and thus could not be the proximate cause of the Kivalina plaintiffs’ loss.  See Comer v Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 2d 84 (S.D. Miss. 2012) ("[t]he 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.") 

Carbon dioxide liability plaintiffs may attempt to rely on the Third Circuit's decision in Bell to attempt to revive their litigation fortunes.  From our perspective, such attempts still won't ring the bell. 

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

Fifth Circuit Knocks Out Climate Change Liability Lawsuit Again

May 16, 2013 00:10
by J. Wylie Donald

Res judicata is one of those phrases learned in law school that seemed of limited utility. How often is someone going to bring the same claim twice?  Callow law students know little of the world.  The doctrine is frequently needed and, as was learned in law school, it can be used to dispose of a claim, even if the prior decision "may have been wrong or rested on a legal principle subsequently overruled in another case."  Federated Dep't Stores, Inc. v. Moitie, 452 U.S. 394, 398 (1981).

On Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit applied the hoary doctrine to snuff out (again) the seven-year old climate change liability saga of Comer v. Murphy Oil USA.  Comer was filed immediately following Hurricane Katrina and asserted that a long list of energy companies were responsible for the increased destructiveness of the hurricane because of their emissions of greenhouse gases.  The trial court disagreed and dismissed the case on standing and political question grounds.  On appeal, however, the plaintiffs convinced an appellate panel of the Fifth Circuit  to reverse the trial court.  Defendants asked for rehearing en banc, which was granted, resulting in the vacating of the panel decision pursuant to court rule. 

Then things got weird.  After the grant of en banc review, the en banc quorum then dissolved with an eighth recusal among the active judges.  With no quorum, the case could not be reviewed.  Because the panel decision was vacated, the trial court dismissal was valid.

Plaintiffs chose not to appeal to the Supreme Court.  Instead they sought mandamus, which was denied.  Plaintiffs then decided to file their claim again, not only by the same plaintiffs on the same theories, but against the same defendants.  The trial court had no difficulty dismissing their claims a second time, relying on res judicata, but also on the statute of limitations, the political question doctrine, preemption, proximate cause and standing.  Another appeal was filed; this time the panel did not side with the plaintiffs.  Instead, it ignored all of the bases for dismissal articulated by the trial court and settled on only one:  res judicata.

To apply, four elements must exist:

(1) the parties are identical or in privity;
(2) the judgment in the prior action was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction;
(3) the prior action was concluded by a final judgment on the merits; and
(4) the same claim or cause of action was involved in both actions. Opinion at 7. 

Only the third element was disputed.  The court held that the trial court's first judgment was a final judgment because, although the panel reversed, that decision was vacated and thus had no effect on the trial court's decision.  Nor did the decision to grant rehearing en banc, nor the Supreme Court's denial of the mandamus motion.  And the trial court's decision was on the merits, notwithstanding that it was a jurisdictional (standing and political question) determination.  Opinion at 10.  Accordingly, res judicata applied; the dismissal was affirmed.

We expect that the precedential value of the court's decision will be limited.  However, its non-precedential value is huge.  A broad and expansive theory of climate change liability was asserted by well-funded and capable plaintiffs' counsel.  After a long journey it joined on the ash heap claims asserted by the State of California (California ex rel. Lockyer v. General Motors), claims by various attorneys general and public interest groups (Connecticut v. American Electric Power), and claims asserted by a Native American community (Kivalina v. ExxonMobil) (albeit nursing a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court).  Petrochemical companies, automobile companies, coal companies and electric utilities are 4-0 on the climate change liability front, with no other cases out there. 

The unanswered questions from Comer are the following: 

Why didn't plaintiffs add new defendants?
Why didn't plaintiffs assert state law nuisance claims in state court rather than pursue them in federal court? 
Why didn't they appeal to the Supreme Court on the merits, rather than seek mandamus? 

These questions are decisions on strategy, and we likely will never know. Last, however, and most importantly, where are the new theories of liability?  Bueller?  Bueller?  

Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court | Utilities

State Common Law Carbon Dioxide Liability Claims: Premonitions of Preemption (and Dismissal)

November 29, 2012 00:48
by J. Wylie Donald

Left open by the Supreme Court’s decision in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527  (2011), was the question of whether state law nuisance claims for the emission of carbon dioxide were viable in the face of the Clean Air Act.  That question continued to be answered in the negative with the decision of the Western District of Pennsylvania last month in Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, GenOn Power Midwest, L.P. (W.D. Penn. Oct. 12, 2012) (attached), which was appealed to the Third Circuit the Friday before Thanksgiving.1   

In Bell, plaintiffs, neighbors to defendant’s coal-fired electricity generating plant, filed suit alleging:

that the [defendant’s] atmospheric emissions fall upon their properties and leave a film of
either black dust (i.e., unburned coal particulate/unburned coal combustion byproduct) or white
powder (i.e., fly ash). According to the Plaintiffs, those discharges require them to constantly
clean their properties, preclude them from full use and enjoyment of their land, and “make
[them] prisoners in their own homes.”  Order at 2. 

Plaintiffs further alleged that defendant did not use best available technology and was damaging the plaintiffs' properties, an outcome not permitted by defendant’s Permit to Operate.  Id. at 3.  As to legal theories, plaintiffs alleged nuisance, negligence and recklessness, trespass and strict liability.  Id.

Defendant moved to dismiss, asserting, among other things, that the claims were preempted by the Clean Air Act.  Id. at 5.  The court agreed. 

Plaintiffs had attempted to distance themselves from their complaint, which had criticized defendants for failing to comply with their Clean Air Act permit and sought injunctive relief.  They asserted in their papers that “[t]he Defendant is allowed to emit whatever millions of pounds of emissions the [EPA] has decided for Defendant but Defendant is not allowed by those emissions granted [to] it by the [EPA] to damage private property.”  Id. at 8.

The court was not buying:  “A review of the Complaint reveals that the allegations of Plaintiffs, as pleaded, assert various permit violations and seek a judicial examination of matters governed by the regulating administrative bodies. … Thus, the Court reads the Plaintiffs’ Complaint, including its common law claims, as necessarily speaking to and attacking emission standards."  Id. at 10.

The court specifically noted that the Supreme Court, in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, had held that “the Clean Air Act preempted federal common law nuisance claims as a means to curb emissions from power plants.”  Id. at 12 (citing 131 S. Ct. at 2540).  It also noted, however, that the Court had not ruled on state law nuisance claims.  Those claims would depend “on the preemptive effect of the federal Act.” Id. (citing 131 S. Ct. at 2540).

Did the Clean Air Act preempt state law nuisance claims?  The court had little doubt and turned for authority to the Fourth Circuit’s decision in N. Carolina, ex rel. Cooper v. Tennessee Valley Auth., 615 F.3d 291 (4th Cir. 2010), cert. dismissed, 132 S. Ct. 46
(2011)).  In finding that “public nuisance claims were preempted because they threaten to scuttle the comprehensive regulatory and permitting regime that has developed over several decades,” Order at 12-13, the Fourth Circuit held: 

A field of state law, here public nuisance law, would be preempted if a scheme of federal regulation is so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it. Here, of course, the role envisioned for the states has been made clear. Where Congress has chosen to grant states an extensive role in the Clean Air Act's regulatory regime through the SIP and permitting process, field and conflict preemption principles caution at a minimum against according states a wholly different role and allowing state nuisance law to contradict joint federal-state rules so meticulously drafted. Id. at 13, quoting Cooper. 615 F.3d at 303 (citations, quotation marks and alterations in original omitted).

Accordingly, because the “specific controls, equipment, and processes to which the Cheswick Generating Station is subject to are implemented and enforced by [state and federal regulators]  Plaintiff’s Complaint, as pled, would necessarily require this Court [the Western District] to engraft or alter those standards, and judicial interference in this regulatory realm is neither warranted nor permitted. To conclude otherwise would require an impermissible determination regarding the reasonableness of an otherwise government regulated activity.”  Id. at 14.  Thus, plaintiffs’ claims were pre-empted.

Plaintiffs had one slim hope.  The Clean Air Act contains a “savings clause”, which provides “[n]othing in this section shall restrict any right which any person (or class of persons) may have under any statute or common law to seek enforcement of any emission standard or limitation or to seek any other relief (including relief against the Administrator or a State agency).” 42 U.S.C. § 7604(e).  This too had been considered in Cooper and rejected.  Order at 14, citing 15 F.3d at 303-04.  Further, the Supreme Court had spoken on savings clauses as well:  “As we have said, a federal statute’s saving clause cannot in reason be construed as allowing a common law right, the continued existence of which would be absolutely inconsistent with the provisions of the act.”  Id. at 14, quoting AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1748 (2011).  Thus, the court found that “Based on the extensive and comprehensive regulations promulgated by the administrative bodies which govern air emissions from electrical generation facilities, the Court finds and rules that to permit the common law claims would be inconsistent with the dictates of the Clean Air Act.”  Id. at 15. 

Accordingly, notwithstanding the suggestion by the Supreme Court in American Electric Power that state law nuisance claims for carbon dioxide liability might be viable, if the Western District’s analysis is correct and applicable to carbon dioxide, such claims will not survive for very long.

 

1Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 2d 849, 865 (S.D. Miss. 2012), also relied on American Electric Power and found state law nuisance claims displaced by the Clean Air Act.  That court had first found that plaintiffs’ claims failed due to res judicata and estoppel, and half a dozen other reasons, and its analysis of the displacement and preemption issue is not extensive. See Dismissed Means Dismissed: Comer v. Murphy Oil, the First Climate Change Liability Damages Suit, Is Tossed Again.

20121012 Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, Order of Dismissal & Notice of Appeal.pdf (694.83 kb)

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

A Wind Farm in Oregon Threatens National Security and President Obama Acts

September 30, 2012 23:41
by J. Wylie Donald

This past Friday, President Obama stopped a national security threat in its tracks:  We quote:

There is credible evidence that leads me [the President] to believe that Ralls Corporation (Ralls), ..., and its subsidiaries, and the Sany Group (which includes Sany Electric and Sany Heavy Industries), a Chinese company affiliated with Ralls (together, the Companies); and, Mr. Dawei Duan (Mr. Duan) and Mr. Jialing Wu (Mr. Wu), citizens of the People's Republic of China and senior executives of the Sany Group, who together own Ralls; through exercising control of Lower Ridge Windfarm, LLC, High Plateau Windfarm, LLC, Mule Hollow Windfarm, LLC, and Pine City Windfarm, LLC (collectively, the Project Companies), ..., might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States; …

Accordingly, under section 721 of the Defense Production Act, the President ordered Ralls to divest itself of all interest in the project and to remove all construction – including any foundations.

We knew climate change and national security were tightly connected.  After all, the Department of Defense issued Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security in October of last year. There we learned that destabilization of less affluent countries as a result of the effects of climate change was a primary risk and a threat to national security.  We did not learn anything about the threat posed by domestic windfarms.  Then Defense Secretary Panetta accepted an award in May 2012 from the Environmental Defense Fund on behalf of the Department of Defense.  He noted: “The area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security; rising sea levels, severe droughts, the melting of the polar caps, the more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief”.  His domestic focus was cybersecurity, not wind turbines on the Oregon plateau.

So it was something of a surprise that the Obama Administration engaged on climate change and national security by tangling with China on a small wind farm project in northeastern Oregon.  But then again, who knew Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility Boardman was just a few miles down the road testing drones and the electronics on airplanes such as the EA-18G Growler? Who knew?  The folks at the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) knew.

CFIUS is a little known government entity.  A useful and prescient summary of the role of CFIUS in windfarm projects was published by our colleague at Steptoe & Johnson, Richard Reinis, back in 2009.  In a nutshell,  “The CFIUS statute authorizes the President to investigate the impact on US national security of mergers, acquisitions, and takeovers by foreign persons. If a transaction would result in an impairment of national security that could not be mitigated by agreement with the parties, the President may block the transaction or order divestiture of an already completed deal.”  Mr. Reinis then demonstrates his forecasting skills and describes where CFIUS approval might be necessary: “a wind farm within observation distance of a sensitive, national security installation, or in proximity of any other significant national security site.”  Fast forward three years and he could have been writing the President's order.

To return to Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility Boardman, drones and the Growler, when CFIUS knows something, it can shut things down.  And it did.  Back in July CFIUS issued a cease and desist order to Ralls.  Ralls responded with a lawsuit challenging CFIUS authority under the Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act.  Following an agreement with the government to permit some limited preliminary construction, Ralls withdrew its suit.  Then came last Friday’s order.  Sany Group, Ralls’ Chinese affiliate, immediately vowed to sue.

Sany Group’s and Ralls’s fight is certain to be an uphill battle;  the implementing legislation states that the President’s decisions are not subject to judicial review.  See 50 U.S. C. App. 2170(e).  Some have suggested that the path to success lies in a suit against CFIUS, not the President, under the holdng in the Supreme Court's recent decision in Sackett v. EPA, where final agency action entitles one to judicial review.  If that is the case, we expect a further obstacle.  Litigating national security is notoriously difficult.  The government refuses to disclose the details of the national security question and the courts are handcuffed.  We are intrigued here by the order's twice-repeated requirement to remove any foundations.  Are super-sensitive detectors suspected among the rebar and concrete?  We recall the multi-million dollar fiasco of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, where bugs were embedded throughout.  We do not expect ever to find out the details of the national security threat posed by Ralls, in contrast (we hope) to the threats posed by other facets of climate change. 

Climate Change | Renewable Energy | Wind Energy | Supreme Court

Oral Argument in Kivalina: Winds of Change or Climate Change Liability Suits Becalmed?

December 4, 2011 23:16
by J. Wylie Donald

On November 8-9, 2011 an Arctic gale bore down on the peninsulas, islands, salt marshes and beaches of the Alaska littoral.  Named the Bering Sea Superstorm it pounded Alaska with 8-10 foot storm surges, wind gusts up to 75 mph and blizzard conditions.  One small community was particularly fearful.  Many readers already know of whom we are speaking:  Kivalina.  The National Weather Service wrote:  "WIDESPREAD MAJOR COASTAL FLOODING AND SEVERE BEACH EROSION IS EXPECTED IN THE FOLLOWING AREAS: ... 4. THE CHUKCHI SEA COAST FROM CAPE KRUSENSTERN TO POINT HOPE. THIS INCLUDES THE VILLAGES OF NOME AND KIVALINA WHERE MAJOR DAMAGE FROM COASTAL FLOODING AND STRONG WINDS IS EXPECTED.  Fortunately, the seawall at Kivalina held.

While unusual, this was one storm of thousands that have visited high winds and storm surge upon Alaska's shoreline over the millennia.  Last Monday a storm of a different sort broke. Although not even rated on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the verbal gusts exhaled before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Native Village of Kivalina v ExxonMobil Corp. may have substantially more effect than any Arctic storm.  Or they may not. (Click here for the video or audio link or oral argument.)

Kudos must be extended to Matt Pawa (Appellant Kivalina) and Daniel Collins (Defendants/Appellees) for masterful argument.  Both were completely on top of their game, whether it was jousting with the Court or each other over the Restatement (Second) (and sometimes Third), laying out their key arguments or responding to pointed questions from Judges Thomas, Clifton or Pro (on temporary assignment from the District of Nevada).

(For those to whom Kivalina is not familiar, in a nutshell, a native Alaskan village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea has brought suit against electric utilities, oil companies and one coal company.  The complaint asserts the defendants are responsible for excess emissions of greenhouse gases, which have led to global warming, which has resulted in delayed formation of arctic sea ice and early melting as well, which has accelerated the erosion caused by winter storms.  The plaintiffs seek damages for the cost of relocating their village.  The suit was dismissed on political question grounds by the District Court for the Northern  District of California; it is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.)

Mr. Pawa opened his argument with the proposition that it is black letter law that no balancing of interests is needed where an intentionally caused nuisance is causing a claimant serious harm.  He cited numerous Restatement sections in support.  The Court seemed skeptical.  Judge Clifton asserted in his question that balancing was called for in the Restatement.  Judge Pro wanted to know what instructions Mr. Pawa would give to the jury.  Judge Clifton queried:  "Why is it so difficult to find a case that remotely resembles this one?"  Mr. Pawa pointed to People v. Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., 66 Cal. 138, 4 P. 1152 (1884), which established, he said, that valid nuisance claims lie against all polluters of a common resource.  (We, of course, take strong exception to any referral to carbon dioxide as pollution in light of its ubiquity, natural presence, and lack of toxicity in the atmosphere.  The parallels to water vapor - the most prevalent greenhouse gas and in no one's estimation a pollutant - are striking.)

Although  there was not enough time in argument to fully develop Gold Run Ditch, it is worth a moment to consider.  There the California Supreme Court was asked to enjoin hydraulic mining which was despoiling California's rivers and threatening agricultural interests.  In holding that an injunction against the hydraulic mining operator should issue, the Court wrote:

But a legitimate private business, founded upon a local custom, may grow into a force to threaten the safety of the people, and destruction to public and private rights; and when it develops into that condition, the custom upon which it is founded becomes unreasonable, because dangerous to public and private rights, and cannot be invoked to justify the continuance of the business in an unlawful manner. Every business has its laws, and these require of those who are engaged in it to so conduct it as that it shall not violate the rights that belong to others. Accompanying the ownership of every species of property is a corresponding duty to so use it as that it shall not abuse the rights of other recognized owners ... Upon that underlying principle, neither State nor Federal legislatures could, by silent acquiescence, or by attempted legislation ... divest the people of the State of their rights in the navigable waters of the State for the use of a private business, however extensive or long continued .... As we have already said, the rights of the people in the navigable rivers of the State are paramount and controlling.  66 Cal. at 152.

The effect of Gold Run Ditch and a parallel decision in federal court, Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining Co., 18 F. 753 (1884), effectively ended hydraulic mining in California.  Whether a similar ruling could be used against entities emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere remains to be seen.

Another interesting argument broached by Mr. Pawa concerned what he referred to as trivial emitters.  Judge Thomas played into his hand with a question about whether his driving to work made him a defendant.   According to Mr. Pawa Section 36 of the Restatement  (Third) takes care of that issue and negates liability to trivial emitters.  That section provides:  "When an actor’s negligent conduct constitutes only a trivial contribution to a causal set that is a factual cause of physical harm under § 27, the harm is not within the scope of the actor’s liability."  Mr. Pawa would permit the defendants to demonstrate that they constitute trivial contributors to the global warming problem.

In closing, Mr. Pawa cited the substantial precedent in his clients' favor.  The Second Circuit reversed the trial court and found standing for the plaintiffs in Connecticut v. AEP, 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009), which was not reversed by the Supreme Court.  Likewise the appellate panel in Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009), also reversed the trial court and found standing for the climate change liability plaintiffs.  (Mr. Pawa acknowledged that the decision had been vacated and cited the decision for the panel's thinking, not as precedent.)  Last, in Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S.Ct. 1438 (2007), the Supreme Court also found standing for an entity alleging damage from greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Collins responded to Mr. Pawa's arguments and knocked down plaintiffs' claim that black letter law established that balancing was not required.  Mr. Collins pointed to comment e of section 821B of the Restatement (Second) which requires an assessment of reasonableness whether the allegation is an intentional, reckless or negligent nuisance.  Further, the balancing required by plaintiffs' claims is "utterly without precedent."  "But balancing is what courts do all the time," interjected Judge Pro.  "Nothing on this scale has ever been remitted to a court," rejoined Mr. Collins.  This is not a case about a discreet pollution site; it is a case of global dimensions and there is no traceability of the emitted carbon dioxide (as the plaintiffs conceded).

The Court was not so easily put off and brought up AEP, where the Second Circuit had permitted plaintiffs to proceed with their greenhouse gas liability claim, and the Supreme Court had not reversed.  Mr. Collins had seen that softball coming:  AEP is different because some of the plaintiffs were sovereigns, which was not the case here.

Mr. Collins closed with strong points on his clients' primary position:  displacement of the federal common law applies to both injunctive and damages remedies.  This was established in Middlesex County Sewerage Auth. v. Sea Clammers, 453 U.S. 1, 13 (1981).  The reason is simple.  When Congress crafted the regulatory framework establishing the Clean Air Act, which displaced injunctive remedies, see American Electric Power v. Connecticut, Congress did not provide for any compensatory relief to an aggrieved private party.  Accordingly, a damages remedy is also displaced and the plaintiffs' claim is barred.  As the Ninth Circuit had itself held in In re Exxon Valdez, 270 F.3d. 1215 (9th Cir. 2001):  "a nuisance theory would enable a federal district judge to substitute a different balancing of interests from the one made by the agency to which Congress assigned the job". 

In our view the Court's decision is not likely to be the final curtain.  If it goes in favor of the plaintiffs, the defendants will certainly appeal.  And if the defendants prevail, the state law claims (dismissed by the federal district court without prejudice) are likely to be refilled, particularly with the invitation set forth in by the Supreme Court in AEP:  "None of the parties have briefed preemption or otherwise addressed the availability of a claim under state nuisance law. We therefore leave the matter open for consideration on remand."

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

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

American Electric Power v. Connecticut: 8-0 the Supreme Court Rules Federal Common Law is Displaced

June 20, 2011 23:25
by J. Wylie Donald

The moment we have been waiting for since 2004 (when the first climate change liability case was filed) finally arrived. The Supreme Court today rendered its opinion in American Electric Power Co., Inc.. v. Connecticut.  As many predicted following oral argument, the use of the federal common law of nuisance to limit carbon dioxide emissions simply is not a viable theory because it has been displaced by the Clean Air Act and the EPA's steps to implement the Act.

For those who have not yet read the opinion, it is straightforward. Following the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, the EPA undertook to begin the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. AEP at 2.  Within the framework of the Clean Air Act it issued its "Endangerment Ruling" (76 Fed. Reg. 66496), and then adopted final rules regulating emissions from light-duty trucks, initiated a joint rulemaking covering medium and heavy-duty vehicles, began phasing in requirements for best available control technology for major greenhouse gas emitters, and commenced a rulemaking on emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants. Id.at 2-3.  That rule is due to be final in May 2012.  Id.at 3. With those steps, and the comprehensive activities authorized under the Clean Air Act (id. at 10-11), the Court applied the simple test:  "whether congressional legislation excludes the declaration of federal common law is simply whether the statute 'speak[s] directly to [the] question' at issue." Id.at 10. The Court held:  "the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants." Id.

The Court responded to arguments that the EPA was only beginning to regulate but had not yet finished the process by emphasizing that it was the "delegation [that] displaces federal common law.". Id.at 12 (emphasis added). That is, even if the EPA chose not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, "the federal courts would have no warrant to employ the federal common law of nuisance to upset the agency's expert determination." Id.

Some may recall that the political question doctrine was front and center in the decisions below. See id. at 5-6.  Here, however, the Court mentions it only indirectly.  In describing the "prescribed order of decisionmaking" (i.e., expert agencies and then federal judges), "the expert agency is surely better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case injunctions." Id.at 14.

Notwithstanding the apparently simple rule and its application, we do not expect AEP to end climate change liability litigation.  State nuisance law (which plaintiffs pleaded) remains. Although the Court offered no opinion on such a theory's efficacy, it did give a hint of where it might land:  "the Clean Water Act does not preclude aggrieved individuals from bringing a 'nuisance claim pursuant to the law of the source state.'" Id. at 15-16 (citing International Paper Co. v. Ouellette, 479 U. S. 481 (1987)). Accordingly, the case was remanded to the Second Circuit.

Further, the significance of Justice Sotomayor's recusal (which we called in an earlier post) manifested itself. The Court split 4-4 on the issue of standing (which compelled it to hear the case on the merits).  Id. at 6.  This jurisdictional dispute could surface in the future when Justice Sotomayor is included in the full panel. She presumably would be in favor of broader standing, which is likely to support more claims of aggrieved climate change plaintiffs.

Last, the Court offered some helpful commentary for future carbon-dioxide liability insurance coverage cases.  We have written often on how carbon dioxide should not fall within the meaning of pollution in a comprehensive general liability policy's pollution exclusion.  The Court appears to agree.  In discussing the scope of legislative activity needed to preempt federal common law, the Court stated:  "Congress could hardly preemptively prohibit every discharge of carbon dioxide unless covered by a permit. After all, we each emit carbon dioxide merely by breathing."

Immediate effects of the decision will be filings by the defendants in the Kivalina v. ExxonMobil case before the Ninth Circuit for dismissal.  Undoubtedly the justices deciding Steadfast Insurance Co. v. AES Corp. will read the decision; how it will affect them is hard to say.  It should have no effect on the multiple climate change lawsuits orchestrated by Our Children's Trust.  And over the long term, it likely will have the effect of forcing plaintiffs' to come up with new climate change liability theories.  That will not be necessary, of course, if (as has been suggested) Congress acts to remove carbon dioxide from EPA's jurisdiction.  In that case, we just might find AEP revived.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Legislation | Supreme Court

Our Children's Trust Unleashes Wave of Climate Change Litigation

May 5, 2011 13:40
by J. Wylie Donald

When we wrote last month concerning the implications of the upcoming decision by the Supreme Court in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, we were fully expecting to wait for the decision to test our powers of prognostication.  We were very wrong.  In a collection of lawsuits and regulatory filings across the nation, environmentalists have joined the climate change litigation fray in a very big way.  Here is what we wrote:  "[A dismissal of Connecticut] says nothing about state law nuisance claims, nor new theories that have not yet been tested, nor even thought up. We strongly believe that carbon dioxide liability suits will be with us for a while yet. Our reason: climate change is ongoing and those whose interests are harmed will look for succor. So theories of liability will be spun and suits will be brought. And such suits will require a defense."
 
Here is what has happened:  On Monday, May 4, in state courts across the nation lawyers representing children and young adults filed (and apparently will continue to file) suits seeking to compel State governments to recognize the application of the public trust doctrine to greenhouse gas emissions and to take action to abate those emissions.  The environmental group coordinating these actions is Our Children's Trust, based in Eugene, Oregon.  Its mission:  "Protecting Earth's Climate for Future Generations."  It is joined by Kids vs. Global Warming, whose "youth activists" are named plaintiffs in a number of the actions.  So far (according to the Associated Press), cases have been filed in California, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, and also in federal court in California.  Our perception is that these jurisdictions are friendlier to environmental issues than other places.  In those other places regulatory petitions are being filed.
 
We won't go into the details of all of these filings but here is the gist of the claims brought in New Mexico: Sanders-Reed v. Martinez.  New Mexico is at risk from the effects of climate change.  From loss of snowpack to drought to extreme heat waves, as temperatures rise life in New Mexico is being degraded.  Enter the State.  Before the current administration of Governor Martinez, New Mexico was taking steps to limit the discharge of greenhouse gases within New Mexico.  State agencies studied the problem and made recommendations.  The governor issued executive orders.  The Environmental Improvement Board promulgated greenhouse gas regulations.  New Mexico joined the Western Climate Initiative.  Id. ¶¶ 61-73, 76.  Then Governor Martinez took office at the beginning of this year.  According to the complaint, she attempted to block the publication of the greenhouse gas rules and announced that she would keep New Mexico from joining a regional cap-and-trade program. She also removed all of the members of the Environmental Improvement Board because she believed the Board was anti-business.  The Small Business-Friendly Task Force, created by the Governor, has recommended that New Mexico shift to “observer” status in the Western Climate Initiative. Id. ¶¶ 74-76.
 
Plaintiffs, one teen-ager (a member of Kids vs. Global Warming) and one environmental group, sued under the public trust doctrine, which has not yet been applied to the atmosphere.  In a nutshell, plaintiffs assert that "Defendant State of New Mexico has failed in its fiduciary duty to recognize and protect our atmospheric public trust resource, thereby injuring these Plaintiffs."  Id. ¶ 19.  In more detail, plaintiffs desire a declaration by the New Mexico court that "(1) the public trust doctrine is operative in New Mexico and, pursuant to this doctrine, the State holds the atmosphere in trust for the public; (2) the State has an affirmative fiduciary duty to establish and enforce limitations on the levels of greenhouse gas emissions as necessary to protect and preserve the public trust in the atmosphere; (3) the State’s fiduciary duty to protect the atmospheric trust is defined by the best available science; and (4) the State has breached its fiduciary duty to protect the public trust in the atmosphere by failing to exercise its right of control over the atmosphere in a manner that promotes the public’s interest in the atmosphere and does not substantially impair this resource."  One will note that the claim is for declaratory relief, but not damages.  Plaintiffs' goal is to stabilize before 2100 the earth's atmosphere at 350 ppm carbon dioxide.  Id. ¶¶ 51-53.  Today it is at 390 ppm and increasing.  Id. ¶¶ 43, 45.  Failure to achieve such stabilization will lead to catastrophe.  Id. ¶ 46. (If you wish to read other complaints and petitions, visit Our Children's Trust's website.)
 
There are a host of issues before these lawsuits are successful.  First, is the atmosphere subject to the public trust doctrine?  Second, can private parties require the State to act to preserve that trust?  Third, what are the elements of standing for those parties?  Fourth, what is the "best available science"?  Fifth, could federal preemption apply?  And probably many more.  But plaintiffs have a lot of opportunities to address these questions and will undoubtedly learn from one case so as to improve the others.
 
In the meantime, the battle for control of the public dialog will continue.  Environmentalists have chosen a broad-based attack and will certainly make the most out of any successes they have.  Further, although we will not link the Tuscaloosa tornadoes and this year's record Mississippi flooding to climate change, some certainly will because more extreme weather is a central prediction of the climate change story.   Those kinds of extreme weather events may be all that is necessary to push climate change back onto the federal agenda.  

Perhaps the most interesting facet of this set of cases is how it juxtaposes with Connecticut.  In that case, States are suing private parties to compel them to abate carbon dioxide emissions.  Commentary on the Supreme Court argument suggests that the Court may have some sympathy to States who are trying to remedy a problem that the federal government is ignoring.  Now private parties are suing those same State governments asserting that they are not doing enough either.
 
And where does all this leave our prediction.  We are right about new theories, right about claims of ongoing injuries and right that more suits would be brought.  We are wrong that those suits would be suits for liability.  We are wrong today, anyway.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Greenhouse Gases | Supreme Court

The Implications of American Electric Power v. Connecticut for the Duty to Defend

April 24, 2011 21:52
by J. Wylie Donald

We were interviewed by Business Insurance last week after the Virginia Supreme Court heard argument in AES Corp. v. Steadfast Insurance Co. The topic du jour:  what would be the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in American Electric Power v Connecticut. Obviously, an insurance readership would very much like to know if carbon dioxide liability was something they needed to continue to worry about. Much of the blogosphere has concluded that the justices didn't give much credence to the public nuisance theories of the plaintiffs (we reserve judgment on that conclusion - there were some pretty tough questions posed to the appellants too). If that is so, then carbon dioxide liability is something like Y2K, right?

Unfortunately, we fear that is not the case. The concerns over Y2K reached their zenith at 1159 on December 31, 1999. By 1201 on January 1, 2000 most everyone had slapped each other on the back and moved on. Story over. Concerns over carbon dioxide liability are unlikely to have that sharp crest.  If a decision favorable to carbon dioxide emitters is issued by the Supreme Court, that will only mean that federal common law nuisance claims cannot move forward. It says nothing about state law nuisance claims, nor new theories that have not yet been tested, nor even thought up. We strongly believe that carbon dioxide liability suits will be with us for a while yet. Our reason:  climate change is ongoing and those whose interests are harmed will look for succor. So theories of liability will be spun and suits will be brought.  And such suits will require a defense.
 
All of which leads us back to AES v. Steadfast.  The Virginia Supreme Court will render a decision on one state's law on likely only one issue. Indeed, at oral argument, Steadfast's counsel conceded the result would be different in other jurisdictions. Thus, insureds concerned about carbon dioxide liability should be paying attention to choice of law rules, and to the range of issues where choice of law matters.

Let's look at just the two issues in dispute in AES, the application of the pollution exclusion and the meaning of occurrence. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has already ruled that exhaled carbon dioxide is not a "pollutant" and numerous jurisdictions have held that a so-called "absolute" pollution exclusion is not absolute.  Donaldson v. Urban Land Interests, Inc., 564 N.W.2d 728, 730 (Wis. 1997); Am. States Ins. Co. v. Koloms, 687 N.E.2d 72 (Ill. 1997) (carbon monoxide); W. Am. Ins. Co. v. Tufco Flooring E., Inc., 409 S.E.2d 692 (N.C. Ct. App. 1991) (floor sealant); Cont’l Cas. Co. v. Rapid-Am. Corp., 593 N.Y.S.2d 966 (1993) (asbestos); Keggi v. Northbrook Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 13 P.3d 785 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2000) (bacteria).   As for occurrence, in many jurisdictions there is no question that an occurrence is determined by looking at the intentionality of the injury from the subjective standpoint of the insured, rather than the reasonably foreseeable standard argued by the insurer in AES. Compare Ohio Cas. V. Henderson, 939 P.2d 1337 (Ariz. 1997); Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co. v. Pacchetti, 808 S.W.2d 369 (Mo. 1991) with Brief of Appellee, AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co., No. 100764 (Va. Sup. Ct. Oct 8, 2010).  Accordingly, it would be extremely shortsighted for insureds to assume every jurisdiction is like every other. 

Potential carbon dioxide liability defendants should take two steps going forward. They should ascertain what state's law will be applied on the liability contract they are purchasing today and how that law is likely to address the carbon dioxide liability coverage questions. And they should be asking the same questions for past occurrence-based policies. 

And of course, if the oracles and seers who have channeled the Supreme Court turn out to be wrong, the need for coverage and the answers to these questions will manifest themselves much sooner.

Brief of Appellee, AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co..pdf (182.69 kb)     

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance | Supreme Court

Oral Argument is April 19 in American Electric Power v. Connecticut and in AES Corp. v. Steadfast Insurance Co.

April 6, 2011 00:09
by J. Wylie Donald

Where I grew up (outside of Boston) April 19 is of singular moment. On that day, over 200 years ago, the British marched from Boston to destroy the military stores in Concord. But Paul Revere and William Dawes got the word out first and the Minutemen gathered at the Old North Bridge, stood their ground and then chased the British back to Boston. The locals celebrate by "marching to Concord" every year to witness the reenactment.

April 19 this year also has significance, but the action will not be "by the rude bridge that arched the flood."  Rather, readers of this blog will be focused on two Supreme Courts - one in Washington and the other in Richmond. On the docket?  Two climate change cases.

In Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in American Electric Power v. Connecticut.  This case is the bellwether for climate change liability suits and will test whether public nuisance under federal common law provides a viable theory for shifting damages arising from climate change to carbon dioxide emitters. Almost four dozen amicus briefs have been filed and where the Court will land is anybody's guess. EPA is attempting to regulate carbon dioxide using the Clean Air Act but other lawsuits and Congress challenge that effort. Will that eviscerate the argument that carbon dioxide regulation has been committed to the political branches of the federal government?  Does the fact that the case was brought by state attorneys general prima facie establish that this case is all about a robust federalism?  We hope to have a better inkling on where the Court will land after we hear the oral argument.

Across the Potomac and several miles down the road, the Virginia Supreme Court is hearing AES Corp. v. Steadfast Insurance Co. on the very same day.  (It seems too unlikely to be a coincidence.  Readers will remember that Stop the Beach Replenishment, Inc. was heard the same day the New Jersey Supreme Court took argument on City of Long Branch, both beach replenishment cases, see climatelawyers.com).  That case tests whether there will be insurance coverage under general liability policies for carbon dioxide liability. The insurer filed the case as a declaratory judgment action disclaiming coverage for one of the utilities sued in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp.  The trial court, in the briefest of opinions, held that because "no 'occurrence' as defined in the policies [was] alleged in the underlying Complaint," there was therefore no coverage. AES appealed directly to the Virginia Supreme Court, which granted certification.  Before the court are arguments about the scope of an "occurrence", but also over whether a pollution exclusion applies, even though the trial court rendered no opinion on that topic.  The implications of a decision are potentially colossal, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court permits Connecticut to move forward. Steadfast is the first climate change liability coverage suit and, to our knowledge, not a single climate change liability defendant has been defended by its insurer in any of the three damages cases (Comer v. Murphy Oil, California v. General Motors, Kivalina).

Two hundred years ago on April 19th was fired the "shot heard round the world."  The metaphor is not perfect but this month on the same day similarly significant salvos will be set off in the climate change liability and coverage wars. Stay tuned.

20100205 Order for Summary Judgment for Steadfast against AES.pdf (120.02 kb)

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court | Utilities


McCARTER & ENGLISH CLIMATE CHANGE AND RENEWABLE ENERGY PRACTICE GROUP

The business case for the development of renewable energy projects, from biodiesel and ethanol to wind, solar, and distributed generation, is more compelling than ever as tax and regulatory incentives combine to attract investments. Emerging issues in environmental law and increasingly recognized principles of corporate social responsibility are encouraging public companies to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions, install clean energy alternatives, and invest overseas in projects under the Kyoto Protocol to respond to climate change concerns.

Click here for more information and a list of our group members.
© McCarter & English, LLP. All Rights Reserved. disclaimer
navbottom image