Who is liable when global warming is named in a lawsuit?
Forging ahead with a new legal precedent, a dozen Mississippi Gulf Coast homeowners say electric companies are responsible for global warming and should pay for damages incurred during Hurricane Katrina.
The homeowners are suing 33 electric utilities and energy companies, including ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, USA Today reports. The suit alleges the energy companies emitted greenhouse gases that contributed to global warming. The subsequent rise in sea levels and an increase in air and water temperatures fueled the Category 5 hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, destroying homes and businesses in its wake.
"Just because climate change is difficult, courts aren't going to shy away from their traditional role in weighing issues of harm," said Robert Percival, director of the Environmental Law Program at the University of Maryland. After a judge initially dismissed the suit, last month the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case.
Indeed, the Mississippi case is among a number of other cases that are testing the role of the courts in the climate change discussion. In Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., the courts in September sided with eight municipalities, including New York City, in a suit against a coal-burning utility accused of emitting gas emissions that became a “public nuisance.” The court gave an injunction capping emissions from the companies.
And in California, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by an Alaskan tribal village, Kivalina, which sued 24 energy companies for $400 million in damages after they said global warming made their village uninhabitable. The villagers are appealing the decision.
In Mississippi, the homeowners’ case is also a long shot. In legal documents, attorneys for the coal companies named in the suit say the homeowners’ claims are political, not legal. "The judicial branch of government is not equipped with a better set of 'manageable standards' than the political branches for resolving the challenges presented by the scientific theory of global warming," they wrote.
Indeed, a Claims Court judge previously dismissed the case on that basis.
And that’s just the beginning. "Let's just assume for a moment that the court accepts global warming as being caused by various emissions. You then have to say that emission caused, in a legal sense, Hurricane Katrina and was the primary cause of the actual injury," said William Walsh, a private practice lawyer who formerly worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. "There are numerous hurdles here."
F. Gerald Maples, a New Orleans attorney who is representing the homeowners, has not been dissuaded. What the defendants did may be legal, he said, but homeowners want compensation for the damage.