Comer Resurgens: Life After American Electric Power v. Connecticut

Comer Resurgens: Life After American Electric Power v. Connecticut

July 7, 2011 13:23
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

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