All posts tagged 'American Electric Power v. Connecticut'

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

December 4, 2011 20:16
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 10:23
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 20:25
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 10:40
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 18:52
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 5, 2011 21:09
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

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