Part two of our update on recent climate change litigation.  In our last post, we discussed the well reasoned decision in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 2009 WL 3326113 (N.D.Cal. 9/30/09).  We contrasted it with the somewhat startling (2-judge) Second Circuit panel decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., allowing a group of states and land trusts to proceed with a so-called global warming tort suit.

In another noteworthy recent case, the Fifth Circuit recently held that a group of property owners in Mississippi can proceed with global warming-related claims. See Comer v. Murphy Oil Co., 2009 WL 3321493 (5th Cir. 10/16/09).  A proposed class of thousands of property owners alleged that damage to their Mississippi coastal properties from Hurricane Katrina would not have been as serious had not defendants’ climate change conduct intensified the storm. Along with the Second Circuit decision, this opinion represents a clear and dangerous trend within the court of appeals to usurp Congress, warp the traditional nuisance doctrine, and plunge the federal courts into what are essentially political questions.

In Comer, the district court correctly held that tort suits against electric power companies and other alleged large greenhouse gas emitters should not proceed in federal court because climate change, and tort claims based on alleged climate change, is fraught with national political and policy considerations.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, asserting that until Congress, the executive branch, or a federal agency acts more directly on global warming, Mississippi common law tort rules questions posed by the case are justiciable because there is no commitment of those issues exclusively to the political branches of the federal government.  Thus, plaintiffs had demonstrated standing for public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims; the claims were justiciable and did not present a political question.

The Fifth Circuit in some ways went  further than the Second Circuit, ruling in essence that climate change-related claims are not limited to injunctions being brought by governmental entities or even quasi-public groups like nonprofit land trusts. The Fifth Circuit ruled that private property owners under Mississippi law also may have standing to bring climate change-related nuisance and trespass claims for both property and punitive damages. That holding may propel additional climate change litigation — if the ruling stands following likely rehearing motions.

The causation allegation here was arguably even more attenuated than the long, convoluted causation chain in other global warming cases; plaintiffs asserted that defendants’ greenhouse gases didn’t cause but contributed to global warming, which made the waters in the Gulf of Mexico warmer, which didn’t create but then made Hurricane Katrina more intense, which then caused their alleged property damage to be worse.  That stands as perhaps the most attenuated, least supportable, causal link in tort history — the absence of proximate cause as a matter of law.  The concurrence noted this issue, and would have affirmed a dismissal on this basis.  With class certification, expert discovery, Daubert, and summary judgment hurdles to be crossed, it is clear that this causation issue will not soon disappear.

Ironically, the rash of global warming opinions in cases that had been argued long ago may reflect a recognition of the new administration and a changing emissions policy… in turn, reflecting the political nature of the issues. All readers ought to have profound reservations about the notion, inherent in all private climate change litigation, that the tort system is capable of adjudicating rights and responsibilities on the subject of global warming.

The decisions potentially present business interests with difficult choices: proposed regulations from the administration may be onerous and not grounded in good science; but absent federal action, defendants may risk public nuisance liability in the courts on issues that juries cannot begin to handle well.