I've previously opined on this blog and elsewhere that global warming litigation -- at least cases in which individuals seek damages from companies that emit greenhouse gasses -- has no leg to stand on because causation is so attenuated and the issue is tied up with important political questions that are committed to the expertise of federal agencies like the EPA, as well as Congress.
My viewpoint was confirmed a few years ago in a case called Comer, in which a Mississippi federal court dismissed a class action filed by Hurricane Katrina victims who sought to blame their loss on various energy and mining companies. The trial court had held that the chain of causation was too attenuated to confer constitutional standing on the plaintiffs, and it further held that the case should be dismissed under the political question doctrine because it required the federal court to decide policy questions about greenhouse gas emissions that were committed to the province of the political branches.
Comer had a curious subsequent history. Plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth Circuit, where they won a partial victory, with the appellate court reversing the judgment on the state law claims of public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence. The defendants, however, petitioned for rehearing en banc, and the Fifth Circuit granted the petition and vacated the three-judge panel's decision. Then, a Fifth Circuit judge was recused, resulting in the loss of a quorum for an en banc panel to act. The Fifth Circuit thus dismissed the appeal and reinstated the District Court's opinion. Plaintiffs did not petition the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, but instead petitioned for a writ of mandamus to require the Fifth Circuit to reinstate the appeal. The Supreme Court denied plaintiffs' petition, and thus the District Court's opinion dismissing the lawsuit remained the law of the case.
In May 2011, Ned Comer and the other plaintiffs filed a virtually identical lawsuit in the same District Court asserting the causes of action the three-judge panel had said should have been remanded: public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence. Plaintiffs sued the same defendants, and added a few more. Feeling as if it was Groundhog's Day, the defendants once again moved to dismiss.
Yesterday the court issued an opinion unsurprisingly granting the defendants' motion to dismiss. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., No. 1:11CV220-LG-RHW, Slip op. (S.D. Miss. Mar. 20, 2012). The court's primary holding is that the suit is barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. The 11 plaintiffs in Comer I are the same plaintiffs who have brought Comer II. The district court's order in Comer I was a final order dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction, which is a decision on the merits for the purposes of res judicata. Plaintiffs had a full and fair opportunity to argue the issue in the first suit. The two suits involve the same "transaction," namely damages arising out of the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, the admitted purpose of the second lawsuit is to convince the court that it was wrong in the first lawsuit.
The district court's res judicata holding should have ended the issue. However the court, "out of an abundance of caution," went on to address the defendants' additional arguments.
The court held that plaintiffs lacked Article III standing to assert their state law claims. The court focused on the causation element of the standing inquiry. It noted that the U.S. Supreme Court found that a state had standing to bring a lawsuit to force the EPA to issue greenhouse gas regulations in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007). However, the Supreme Court gave special deference to a state suing in its capacity as a quasi-sovereign, and expressly reserved the question of whether an individual would have standing to bring a global warming claim. Moreover, the Supreme Court had acknowledged that causation regarding greenhouse gases emissions was a difficult global problem, and that any domestic reductions in emissions likely would be offset by increases in developing countries.
The district court also observed that in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011), the Supreme Court was equally divided on the question whether states had standing to file lawsuits against corporations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it expressly reserved the question whether individuals could assert such standing.
The plaintiffs in Comer II relied on authorities under the Clean Water Act finding standing where the defendants were merely alleged to have contributed to plaintiffs' injuries. The district court distinguished their authorities, relying in part on Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxonmobil Corp., 663 F. Supp. 2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009), which had explained that CWA cases only find "contribution" standing where a presumption of standing arises as a result of a defendant's violation of federally-mandated pollution limits. Where, as here, there is no such federally-mandated limit on greenhouse gases (and thus no such violation), no presumption can arise. Moreover, even the CWA cases recognized that a point of discharge can be too remote from the plaintiff's injury to be legally recognized as a contributing cause. See slip op. at 21-22 (citing Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Crown Cent. Petrol. Corp., 95 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 1996) (plaintiffs whose injury was 18 miles from discharge did not have standing to sue over the discharge)).
Ultimately, the Comer II court recognized, even plaintiffs admit that global warming is attributable to numerous natural and man-made causes that interact cumulatively over the period of centuries to create climate effects:
The plaintiffs cannot allege that the defendants' particular emissions led to their property damage. At most, the plaintiffs can argue that the types of emissions released by the defendants, when combined with similar emissions released over an extended period of time by innumerable manmade and naturally-occurring sources encompassing the entire planet, may have contributed to global warming, which caused sea temperatures to rise, which in turn caused glaciers and icebergs to melt, which caused sea levels to rise, which may have strengthened Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the plaintiffs' property.
It is insufficient for the plaintiffs to allege that the defendants' emissions contributed to the kinds of injuries that they suffered.
Slip op. at 20-21. The court concluded that such tenuous causation should not allow plaintiffs to send the defendants on a discovery odyssey "that will likely cost millions of dollars."
The district court in Comer II also held that plaintiffs' claims were non-justiciable under the political question doctrine as established in Baker v. Carr. Plaintiffs argued that Massachusetts v. EPA had rejected that argument. But the district court held that Massachusetts v. EPA was fundamentally different because it involved the proper construction of a congressional statute. Here, the policy judgments regarding greenhouse gas emission levels were expressly committed to the EPA. Indeed, the district court noted, the Supreme Court had stated "that it possessed neither the expertise nor the authority to evaluate the policy judgments that EPA offered as justification for refusing to regulate motor vehicle emissions, such as issues involving foreign relations." Slip op. at 26. The Comer II court concluded:
[T]he plaintiffs are asking the Court, or more specifically a jury, to determine without the benefit of legislative or administrative regulation, whether the defendants' emissions are "unreasonable." Simply looking to the standards established by the Mississippi courts for analyzing nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims would not provide sufficient guidance to the Court or a jury. . . .
. . . The Supreme Court held that judgments concerning the reasonableness of greenhouse gas emissions are properly committed to the EPA, and if district courts were to make such judgments, those judgments would interfere and potentially conflict with the EPA's actions.
. . . The Court finds that the claims presented by the plaintiffs constitute non-justiciable political questions, because there are no judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving the issues presented, and because the case would require the Court to make initial policy determinations that have been entrusted to the EPA by Congress.
Slip op. at 28-29.
The district court in Comer II also concluded that plaintiffs' state law causes of action are preempted by the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions that it authorizes, relying primarily on American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut. That case had held that the CAA preempted a federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The Comer II court reasoned that plaintiffs' state law claims here required the court to do the same thing the federal common law claim would have in Connecticut: determine the reasonableness of the defendants' greenhouse gas emissions. Accordingly, it held that the state law claims were similarly preempted.
The district court in Comer II also held that plaintiffs' claims were barred by Mississippi's three-year statute of limitations. Katrina had hit in 2005, but the lawsuit was filed in 2011. Plaintiffs argued that Mississippi's savings statute operated to toll the statute of limitations. The savings statute gives a plaintiff a year to commence a new suit where the prior suit has been dismissed or abated because of a defect or other matter not affecting the merits.
The district court held the savings statute did not apply because there was a judgment of dismissal with prejudice entered in Comer I. Plaintiffs could have asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, but they did not. Accordingly, the judgment was final.
There is, however, a slim reed of hope for plaintiffs to file a Comer III. In ruling on the statute of limitations, the court concluded that plaintiffs' allegations about their future risk for more severe storms and loss of property are not yet actionable, in part because plaintiffs did not seek injunctive relief. "As a result, the Court finds that the only actionable claims filed by the plaintiffs are the claims concerning Hurricane Katrina, and those claims are barred by the statute of limitations." Slip op. at 33. Could another storm or another theory of injury produce a Comer III? It shouldn't. But with these Plaintiffs, who knows?
Finally, the district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss regarding proximate cause, which is a required element of each of plaintiffs' state law claims. Mississippi defines proximate cause as a cause "'which in natural and continuous sequence unbroken by any efficient intervening cause produces the injury and without which the result would not have occurred.'" Slip op. at 34 (citation omitted). The court held that plaintiffs' theory couldn't meet this standard as a matter of law:
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.
Slip op. at 35.
Judge Louis Guirola's opinion in Comer II is a strong reminder of the many difficulties that private plaintiffs would have trying to impose legal liability on companies for the purported effects of global warming. Although I do not expect plaintiffs' counsel to simply vacate the field in the wake of this opinion, the strength of the arguments against liability suggest why there has been no great rush of firms to file suits asserting these theories of liability.