The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit, the federal court of appeals where I once clerked, has allowed a class action lawsuit by Hurricane Katrina victims to proceed against a motley crew of energy, oil, and chemical companies. Their claim: that the defendants’ greenhouse gas emissions raised air and water temperatures on the Gulf Coast, contributing to Katrina’s strength and causing property damage. Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson calls the plaintiffs’ claims “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”
In Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, the plaintiffs assert a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s actions. The court dismissed several claims but held that plaintiffs indeed could allege public and private nuisance, trespass and negligence. The court also held that these latter claims do not present a so-called “political question” that the court doesn’t have the authority to resolve. You can read about the Court’s ruling in more detail at the WSJ Law Blog and Jackson’s Consumer Class Actions and Mass Torts Blog.
This is actually the second federal appeals court to rule this way; last month, the Second Circuit (based in New York) held that states, municipalities and certain private organizations had standing to bring federal common law nuisance claims to impose caps on certain companies’ greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s the opinion in that case, Connecticut v. American Electric Power Company, and you can read a pretty good summary and analysis here.
Both of these cases, which herald a flood of global warming-related litigation, so to speak, owe their continuing vitality to the Supreme Court’s misbegotten 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. The 2006-2007 Cato Supreme Court Review covered that case in an insightful article by Andrew Morriss of the University of Illinois. (To get your copy of the latest (2008-2009) Review, go here.)
I should note from my own experience at the Fifth Circuit that the panel here consisted of the two worst judges on the court – Clinton appointees Carl Stewart and James Dennis – and one of Reagan’s weakest federal appellate appointments, Eugene Davis. Even Davis, however, wrote separately to note that while he agreed on the standing issue, he would have affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the suit on a different ground (that pesky proximate cause issue).
I predict that the full (16-judge) Fifth Circuit will review this case en banc –and if not that the Supreme Court will eventually take it up (if the district court on remand doesn’t again dispose of the case on causation grounds).