GHG Nuisance Claims? Yes? No? Maybe?

Two more decisions were released last week concerning whether nuisance claims could be brought with respect to harm alleged to have resulted from private conduct contributing to climate change. First, in Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corporation, the District Court dismissed nuisance claims. Second, in Comer v. Murphy Oil, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a District Court dismissal of nuisance claims related to damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina.

Village of Kivalina first. In this case, an Inupiat Eskimo village claimed that global climate change traceable to the defendants has essentially made their village uninhabitable. Notably and, I think, shrewdly, they did not seek injunctive relief, but sought only damages related to the cost of relocating the village. The District Court concluded both that the law suit raised non-justiciable political questions and that the plaintiffs did not have standing, because their harm was not fairly traceable to the defendants’ conduct.

The Fifth Circuit wasn’t buying either of these arguments in Comer v. Murphy Oil. To the Fifth Circuit, like the Second, in the American Electric Power case, the complexity of the underlying proof is not sufficient to render these types of cases non-justiciable. The cases involve tort claims; courts resolve tort claims – pretty much, end of story. I’ve got to say, from my lowly perch, that I think that the Second and Fifth Circuits got it right here. It’s easy to say that it would be better for Congress to deal with climate change than state legislatures or, as here, courts. However, that’s not that same as courts declining to exercise jurisdiction. I’d be surprised if the political question argument  has any real legs.

Standing is a different matter. I still think that both the traceability and redressability elements of standing are problematic. Plaintiffs in both Village of Kivalina and Comer v. Murphy Oil solved the redressability issue by seeking only damages, and not injunctive relief. Both the Second and Fifth Circuits noted that traceability, as a standing issue, necessitates only that the plaintiffs allege that the defendants’ conduct “contributes to” the plaintiffs’ injuries. This is not a stringent test. However, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, I could imagine some courts looking askance at the types of allegations made in these complaints, even at a pleading stage.

On balance, what these cases tell me is that some of these cases are actually likely to be litigated all the way through to trial. Notwithstanding the potentially huge recoveries, it seems here that the cost to the defendants of paying out anything more than nominal damages would be high, and the prospects of successful defense of these claims are still reasonably good. That’s a recipe for trial, as far as I can tell.

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