Rhode Island is pursuing a suit against Big Oil to pay for climate-related costsRhode Island, the first state to file a climate liability suit against oil companies, has so far succeeded in keeping the suit in state court. Photo credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

After a federal appellate court ruling allowed Rhode Island’s climate liability suit to proceed in state court on Monday, the 21 oil and gas companies being sued immediately tried again to get the First Circuit to halt the suit.

The companies followed a pattern they have used in other municipalities’ cases: requesting stay after stay at each judicial level, contending they will be irreparably harmed if the case proceeds. The companies being sued by Rhode Island argued in their second appellate court stay request that the case should be halted until the Supreme Court decides whether to halt Baltimore’s case in Maryland state court, which names many of the same companies.

“These cases raise significant federal issues,” said Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey.

BP and Exxon, also defendants in both suits, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The companies are vigorously arguing the cases should be heard in federal court, where precedent has favored them. The two cases heard in federal court so far—involving New York and San Francisco/Oakland—were dismissed. But there have been a run of decisions lately sending other cases, Rhode Island and Baltimore included, to state court. 

“The two courts that have ruled on the merits of the cases both dismissed under federal law because of the numerous and important national and international economic, policy and security interests,” Comey said. 

In a statement, the Rhode Island attorney general’s office said it appreciates the decision by the First Circuit and is looking forward to moving the case forward in state court.

“This the second unanimous three-judge appellate court panel, in less than a week, that has rejected the fossil fuel industry’s continuing attempts to delay state court proceedings on climate damages liability lawsuits.”

Rhode Island became the first state to file a climate liability suit last July, following more than a dozen others filed by municipalities including New York, Baltimore and numerous cities and counties in California. Rhode Island alleged that the 21 companies knowingly contributed to climate change and failed to adequately warn Rhode Island citizens about the risks posed by their products.

After the oil and gas defendants moved the case to federal court, Rhode Island filed a motion to return the suit to state court, where it was originally filed, and in July a U.S. District Court judge granted that motion and issued a temporary 60-day stay while the companies filed an appeal. The oil and gas companies later asked the federal court to extend the temporary stay, which the court denied.

The companies then turned to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, asking in September for an expedited motion to halt the case pending appeal, contending they will be irreparably harmed if the case were to proceed in state court.

After Monday’s ruling nixed that motion, the oil companies once again asked the First Circuit to stay the case while the Supreme Court considers their motion to stay Baltimore’s climate liability case, which involves similar jurisdictional issues and includes many of the same defendants.

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