Climate Change Litigation

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

Supreme Court Denies Petition for Mandamus in Comer

January 10, 2011 09:59
by J. Wylie Donald
It does not get much more anti-climactic.  The Supreme Court today rejected the Comer v. Murphy Oil plaintiffs' request for a writ of mandamus.  It took only a short seven words to relegate the petition (as well as others) to the dustbin:  "The petitions for writs of mandamus are denied."  So ends a saga that was initiated with Hurrican Katrina, expressed in a complaint, dismissed under the political question doctrine, reversed by the Fifth Circuit, accepted for en banc review, reinstated as dismissed when the Fifth Circuit's quorum dissolved, and ultimately ended up on the Supreme Court's docket.  Then it ended, not with a bang, nor even a whimper.     The questions as framed by the plaintiffs were thoughtful:     Where the litigants have perfected a right to an appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, does the Circuit Court have a duty to render a decision?     When an en banc court loses its quorum after granting rehearing but before hearing argument en banc, can the remaining judges dismiss an appeal of right without a decision on the merits?     When an en banc court loses its quorum before deciding an appeal on rehearing en banc, does the    original panel maintain control over the case? I will be frank, I don't have a clue about the answers to these meaty questions (and I suspect there will be a few law review notes and articles attempting to intuit one).  But I do have some thoughts on the significance of this ruling with respect to climate change litigation. First, it was an expensive defeat for the plaintiffs' bar.  Gerald Maples, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, estimated he had spent $3 million on the case even before the en banc and Supreme Court appeals.  (Maples Australian Interview).  I assume that even for the plaintiffs' bar, $3 million is not chump change.  While tobacco litigation required numerous attempts before plaintiffs finally beat Big Tobacco, tobacco plaintiffs never had to contend with problems of causation anywhere near the complexity faced by climate change plaintiffs.  As stated by the district court in Comer:     I foresee daunting evidentiary problems for anyone who undertakes to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, the degree to which global warming is caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses; the degree to which the actions of any individual oil company, any individual chemical company, or the collective action of these corporations contribute, through the emission of greenhouse gasses, to global warming; and the extent to which the emission of greenhouse gasses by these defendants, through the phenomenon of global warming, intensified or otherwise affected the weather system that produced Hurricane Katrina.  Comer v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., Civ. A. No. 1:05 CV 436-LTD-RHW, 2006 WL 1066645, *4 (S.D. Miss. Feb. 23, 2006). Conversely, however, plaintiffs' counsel may be encouraged notwithstanding the loss in Comer.  There are presently two appellate decisions on the merits on public nuisance climate change cases, Connecticut v. American Electric Power and Comer; both come out for the plaintiffs.  As we wrote in December, with the retirements of Justices Stevens and Souter, and the recusal of Justice Sotomayor, a 4-4 stalemate at the Supreme Court in Connecticut is a distinct possibility.  That, coupled with the panel decision in Comer, could send a message that climate change liability cases are worth bringing.  In that case, we will certainly see more such cases. Second, the Tennessee Valley Authority is batting 1.000 in climate change appeals.  TVA filed papers supporting the petition for certiorari in Connecticut.  The Court accepted the petition.  And TVA opposed the request for mandamus in Comer, which was denied.  The same of course could be said of several other utlities in both litigations.  The difference being that when TVA speaks on the political question doctrine, it is the government itself asserting that it wishes to address climate change through the political process rather than through the courts.  In the appeal of Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, TVA did not join as an amicus.  Instead, the defendants drew the support of two Congressmen:  Lamar Smith, the Ranking Republican Member of the House Judiciary Committee, and James Sensenbrenner, Jr., the Ranking Republican of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.  (Kivalina Amicus Brief) Let us hope that the 50 years of congressional experience between them gives them some sway with the Ninth Circuit. Last, can we read the tea leaves in Connecticut through the Comer lens?  The blogosphere is particularly harsh on the Fifth Circuit for its failure to solve its quorum problem.  Suggested solutions include bringing in a district court judge or a jurist from another circuit.  Instead, based on procedure the court nullified the case's only appellate merits ruling.  That seems a particularly harsh result on a topic of such significance, but it is only so if the Court affirms the Second Circuit and permits the appellate decision in Connecticut to survive. Is the rejection of Comer then, a case of precognition applicable to Connecticut?  By June we will have found out.

Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

Climate Change and the Supreme Court Part II: Certiorari Granted in Connecticut v. American Electric Power

December 6, 2010 07:35
by J. Wylie Donald
It doesn't take much insight to conclude that today's granting by the Supreme Court of the petition for certiorari in Connecticut v. American Electric Power could be the start of a whole new era in climate change liability lawsuits. If the Supreme Court comes down on the side of the plaintiff States, it may become open season on utilities, coal and petrochemical companies, automobile manufacturers, and anyone else a litigation-minded plaintiff wishes to mulct in damages for carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Potential defendants need to take steps now to identify their insurance coverage and be prepared to give notice. The Supreme Court last looked at climate change in 2007 when it concluded in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), by a 5-4 decision, that the Clean Air Act required the USEPA to consider whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were air pollutants within the meaning of the Act. The issue this time is whether the courts should be imposing judicial remedies for injuries allegedly arising from the emission of carbon dioxide, an alleged nuisance. Few reading this blog will need an introduction to Connecticut v. American Electric Power. I won't go over it other than to remind readers that it was filed in New York federal court in 2004 by several states against a collection of carbon dioxide-emitting utilities and was then consolidated with similar cases filed by public interest groups. The basic allegation was that the utilities' carbon dioxide emissions constituted a public nuisance and the plaintiffs sought injunctive relief compelling the utilities to reduce their emissions. On motion, the trial court dismissed the case concluding that the political question doctrine applied because only the political branches (i.e., the legislative and executive arms of the government) could appropriately balance the array of environmental, economic and other issues presented. An appeal followed to the Second Circuit, which reversed and held that the political question doctrine does not preclude federal common law nuisance claims. Following denial of a petition for en banc review, the petition for certiorari was filed on August 2, followed shortly by an amicus curiae brief from the Obama administration. The federal government asserted that the Second Circuit's decision should be vacated because the government was developing regulations and that the courts should stay out. Of course Connecticut v. American Electric Power is not alone. Private and public plaintiffs have brought suit for alleged climate change losses arising in Mississippi, California and Alaska. Although all three cases have been dismissed, the appeal of one was withdrawn, the appellate panel in the second reversed the dismissal, but which was then vacated when the en banc court accepted review and then could not muster a quorum, and the third is pending before the Ninth Circuit. See Cal. v. Gen. Motors Corp., No. C06-05755, 2007 WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 17, 2007), appeal dismissed, No. 07-16908 (9th Cir. June 24, 2009); Comer v. Murphy Oil Co., 2007 WL 6942285 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 30, 2007), rev'd, 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009), reh'g granted, 598 F.3d 208 (5th Cir.), appeal dismissed, 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir. 2010); Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 663 F.Supp.2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009), appeal pending, No. 09-17490 (9th Cir. Nov. 5, 2009). Quite clearly, the last chapter on these types of lawsuits has not been written. Reading the tea leaves on Connecticut v. American Electric Power will be difficult. To grant a petition for certiorari, only four justices need to approve. With the retirement of Justices Stevens (author of Massachusetts v. EPA) and Souter (who joined in the opinion), and the recusal from Connecticut of Justice Sotomayor (who heard argument at the Second Circuit but did not sign the opinion), a 4-4 decision in Connecticut is certainly possible. That would leave the Second Circuit's decision intact without a Supreme Court decision (which might bode well for the appeal of Kivalina before the Ninth Circuit). IMPLICATIONS FOR A DECISION Emitters of carbon dioxide are hoping for a clean decision that puts the climate change liability genie back in the bottle and lays the theory of federal common law nuisance in its grave. But what if that does not occur? There is certainly a fair chance that the justices either affirm the theory, or, 4-4, do not reject it. In that case, plaintiffs' lawyers are very likely to be emboldened and bring other suits. Some target industries have already been identified. When the results of USEPA's greenhouse gas reporting rule are collated, other industries may find themselves in the crosshairs. The time to identify insurance coverage is not when half a dozen claims have been filed in jurisdictions across the nation demanding an answer within 30 days. Climate change defendants and potential defendants should take steps now to prepare for future claims, most notably because of the risk they may lose insurance coverage for these claims if they are not reported timely. Many will rely on notice to their current insurer and that is a good strategy, so far as it goes and only if that carrier agrees to coverage. But besides one's current policy, one should also be considering prior "occurrence-based" policies, which could be triggered based on allegations of injury-causing events occurring over time. It does not require much imagination to analogize the time periods over which, for example, glaciers have melted, snowpack has become depleted, erosion has increased, and water supplies have been drawn down to other drawn-out injuries that established the "continuous trigger" rule that attached multiple policies. Some states have a bright line rule for notice. If it is not given promptly, dismissal based on late notice is a likely result. Other states are more lenient and require prejudice to the insurer. New York until recently was a no-prejudice-to-the-insurer state. But the law changed in 2009 to require the insurer to show prejudice (or the insured to show no prejudice) - but it was not retroactive. Accordingly, insureds with policies subject to New York law (which is often the case due to a choice of law provision in the policy) prior to 2009 still need to give notice promptly. Even in those states that require prejudice to be shown, one cannot know how the case law on prejudice will evolve in the context of climate change; hence prompt notice is a good idea in other states as well. Notice here is not as easy as it may sound. Unlike Superfund cases where the (alleged) responsible entity is identified by the claimant and therefore can be identified to the insurance company, carbon dioxide emission liability can fall to any fossil-fuel fired plant owned by the corporate entity, including potentially those operated by subsidiaries. Accordingly, those subsidiaries' policies may need to be tracked down and placed on notice as well. Taking liberties with Ben Franklin's adage, an ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure. Should climate change claims get the green light from the Supreme Court, policyholders would be wise to have located all of their protection ahead of time.

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance | Supreme Court | Utilities

NFIP Renewal. Finally. For a Moment.

July 6, 2010 16:22
by J. Wylie Donald
Well, they finally got around to it. Since May 31 the National Flood Insurance Program has had no authority to issue flood insurance contracts. The House approved extending the NFIP's authority on June 23, the Senate on June 30, and the President signed the bill July 2, retroactive to June 1 (fittingly, the first day of the official Atlantic hurricane season). This is not a new circumstance. The NFIP's authority first lapsed on March 1, again on March 28 and will do so again on September 30, absent a long-term extension. So what does it mean when the NFIP can't make loans? Dante described a place of sadness and hopelessness in Limbo, the first circle of hell. The metaphor seems apt: a would-be home or small business buyer that cannot get required flood insurance, cannot purchase; she is stuck in a bureaucratic Limbo from which there is no escape but the grace of Congress. Ditto for the home or small business seller. Is there reason to think otherwise? The various National Flood Insurance Acts forbid lenders from making loans on property located in a Special Flood Hazard Area where federal flood insurance is available. 42 U.S.C. § 4012(a). Since the lapse in NFIP authority means that federal flood insurance is not available, lenders are authorized to make loans on property in the flood plain, without requiring flood insurance first. The FDIC confirms this in its May 7, 2010 Financial Insitution Letter FIL-23-2010 (click here.)  However, lenders are not released from the obligations under the Acts to make flood determinations, provide notices to borrowers and otherwise comply with the flood insurance regulations. The FDIC confirms that lenders "should evaluate safety-and-soundness and legal risk and prudently manage those risks during the lapse period." Lenders are also required to establish a program to ensure that borrowers obtain flood insurance when (as has happened) the program is reauthorized.   So, what is a prudent lender to do during the lapse period. The FDIC recommends: 1) postpone closing the loan (see Limbo above), 2) close the loan and require the borrower to obtain private flood insurance (which, if such existed at favorable rates, would demonstrate the NFIP is unnecessary), and 3) make the loan without requiring the borrower to apply for flood insurance. But that is a Catch-22 as well. As the FDIC points out, "Each lender remains responsible for protecting its collateral from risk in a manner appropriate to the circumstances ...." If the property is in a SFHA, a loan is given and the property is destroyed by flood, what regulator will recognize that as a prudent lending practice "appropriate to the circumstances"? So, even if lenders may lend when the NFIP lapses, it seems evident that they will not. As we have written before, the NFIP has numerous issues (premiums that do not match risk, billion dollar deficits, lack of penetration into the populations at risk). Serial lapses of authority and serial reauthorization simply compound these problems.

Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Weather

Needed: Action at Copenhagen

December 6, 2009 18:05
by J. Wylie Donald
What is it about Denmark?  Several hundred years ago a Danish prince couldn't make up his mind about a certain King Claudius and there was hell to pay.  Tomorrow, the leaders of the world (or their representatives) will gather in Copenhagen, and, if everything I read is correct, won't be able to make up their collective minds and there will be hell to pay.   Humankind has set loose on the world's stage a specter, Climate Change, impossible to grasp, subject to many disagreements, and of violent character.  To tame it, an army of diplomats gathered and played out Scene I, where the Kyoto Protocol was conceived, delivered, and is now nearing its final rest.  Now the curtain rises on Scene II in Copenhagen, where all await bold and decisive action.  Or even any action.  Let's look at one sector of the world's economy:  insurance.  In the run-up to Copenhagen, Allianz and the World Wide Fund for Nature teamed to produce a report that identifies four tipping points, where rapid change can be expected with just a small additional change in global average temperatures.  See Allianz SE, World Wide Fund for Nature, Major Tipping Points in the Earth's Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector (November 2009).  Those tipping point scenarios are: 1. rising sea levels and accompanying flooding, with a heightened increase in the Northeast United States; 2. droughts as the Indian monsoons falter, 3.  die-back of the Amazon rainforest, and 4. a shift to a very arid Southwest North America. The Tipping Point report identifies the impacts each of these scenarios will have on insurance.  For example, for rising sea levels "[t]he critical issue is the impact that a hurricane in the New York region would have.  Potentially the cost could be 1 trillion dollars at present, rising to over 5 trillion dollars by mid-century.  Although much of this would be uninsured, insurers are heavily exposed through hurricane insurance, flood insurance of commercial property, and as investors in real estate and public sector securities."  There are several important points in these three sentences.  First, the size of the risk:  trillions of dollars.  Second, the insurance sector has a substantial exposure.  Third, much of the loss would be uninsured, meaning that the non-insurance sector (everybody else?) would bear the bulk of the loss. We blogged last month about the amount of money washing around in insurance company coffers - $4 trillion in premium and nearly $20 trillion under management.  Climate change threatens all of that.  If hurricanes and floods drive loss ratios up, insurance companies will falter.  If real estate investments and public infrastructure are literally under water, the financial debacle will make the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers (mere tens of billions of dollars) seem quaint.  Accordingly, insurance companies (and other businesses) are looking for action at Copenhagen so they can start planning where to put their assets and make their business plans. That is why we need action at Copenhagen.  Business and industry need to plan; they can't do that if our leaders do not lead.  To paraphrase that Danish prince, "to lead, or not to lead, that is not the question."

Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance | Weather

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