Baltimore is arguing to keep its climate suit against oil companies in progress as it fights to keep it in state court. Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

Baltimore says its climate liability lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and 23 other fossil fuel companies should proceed while the Fourth Circuit considers an appeal of a lower court ruling that the case belongs in state court.

A federal judge ruled in June that Baltimore’s suit should be heard in state court where it was filed. The defendant companies appealed that decision and earlier this month filed a motion to stay the case pending the outcome of their appeal, saying they will be irreparably harmed if the case is allowed to continue in state court.

Baltimore alleges in the suit, filed in 2018, that the companies knew for decades that fossil fossil fuels drive climate change but deliberately failed to inform the public about those risks. The city is charging the companies with eight legal violations, including public nuisance, private nuisance, failure to warn and violations of Maryland’s consumer protection laws. 

The city maintains that the companies won’t be harmed because the case will proceed—either in state or federal court—and they would be required to respond to the same discovery.

“The district court even agreed that proceeding in state court while the appeal is pending ‘may well advance the resolution of the case,’” Baltimore’s attorneys wrote in opposition to halting the suit’s progress . “No incremental burden—much less irreparable injury—results from discovery incepting in a Maryland state court rather than a federal court.”

The issue under appeal is whether the suit will proceed in federal or state court, a jurisdictional battle that has been central to climate liability suits filed by communities across the country. Communities are trying to get the cases heard in state court under state laws. Fossil fuel company defendants are fighting to put them in federal court, where previous climate-related cases have been decided largely in the industry’s favor.

In California, the counties of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Cruz, along with the cities of Imperial Beach, Santa Cruz and Richmond won an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who decided the suits belong in state court. San Francisco and Oakland had their cases dismissed after U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that their cases, which involve claims similar to those of the other municipalities, belong in federal court. The rulings have all been appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Baltimore contends that “although defendants argue that a stay would avoid costly and potentially duplicative litigation, the truth is their current appeal ‘may be a fruitless exercise, costing the parties time and money that could otherwise be spent litigating the merits.’”

Baltimore, which has about 60 miles of coastline, says it is already experiencing sea level rise and flooding related to climate change. The city also says its residents are suffering health effects related to other climate impacts, including more intense heat waves and extreme precipitation.

The fossil fuel companies maintain their right to appeal the lower court’s decision would be “rendered meaningless” if the case is not stayed and say they would be unjustly burdened if the case were to proceed in state court.

“Nothing that occurs in state court upon remand could moot or even affect” the oil companies’ appeal, Baltimore wrote in its opposing brief.

“The City’s case has now been sent back to where it belongs—state court—and the public interest requires that it proceed there.”

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