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Comer v. Murphy Oil USA

ELR Citation: 39 ELR 20237
Nos. No. 07-60756, (5th Cir., 10/16/2009)

The Fifth Circuit reversed a lower court decision dismissing Mississippi residents' class action lawsuit against several energy, fossil fuel, and chemical companies for their alleged contribution to climate change. The residents argued that the companies intentionally and unreasonably used their property so as to produce massive amounts of greenhouse gasses that caused an increase in global surface air and water temperatures that, in turn, caused a rise in sea levels and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina. The residents sought compensatory and punitive damages for damage to private and public property based on Mississippi common-law actions of nuisance, trespass, negligence, unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy. Contrary to the decision of the lower court, the residents have standing to assert their nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims. For purposes of Article III standing, an indirect causal relationship will suffice so long as there is "a fairly traceable connection between the alleged injury in fact and the alleged conduct of the defendant." The traceability requirement "need not be as close as the proximate causation needed to succeed on the merits of a tort claim." Here, the residents, relying on scientific reports, allege a chain of causation between the companies' substantial emissions and their injuries. While the residents will be required to support these assertions at later stages in the litigation, at this pleading stage the court must take these allegations as true. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497, 37 ELR 20075 (2007), that injuries may be fairly traceable to actions that contribute to, rather than solely or materially cause, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. In addition, none of these claims present nonjusticiable political questions. The claims do not present any specific question that is exclusively committed by law to the discretion of the legislative or executive branch. Until Congress, the president, or a federal agency enacts or adopts laws or regulations that comprehensively govern greenhouse gas emissions, the Mississippi common law tort claims posed in the instant case are justiciable, not political. However, the residents' unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy claims must be dismissed. The residents are essentially alleging a massive fraud on the political system resulting in the failure of environmental regulators to impose proper costs on the companies. Such a generalized grievance is better left to the representative branches. Hence, they lack standing on these claims.