Baltimore gets the green light for its climate liability suit to continue in state courtBaltimore got the green light to pursue its climate suit against fossil fuel companies in state court. Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

The U.S. Supreme Court denied applications by fossil fuel companies to halt three climate liability lawsuits against them. The court’s order allows the cases filed by Baltimore, Rhode Island and three Colorado communities to proceed in state court while the companies pursue appeals to move the cases to federal court. 

The Supreme Court rulings, issued Tuesday, continue a string of rejections of the companies’ attempts to stay the litigation. In the Baltimore case, a judge for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering the companies’ appeal, denied a motion for a stay earlier this month. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander, who issued the initial decision that the case should be in state court, also refused to pause the case in July. 

The other cases have followed a similar pattern, although in the case of the Colorado lawsuit, the two companies sued—Exxon and Suncor—made the extraordinary step of asking the Supreme Court to completely reverse a lower court decision before it has even considered the appeal.

Plaintiffs in these cases allege state law claims like nuisance and trespass as well as product liability claims and violation of state consumer protection law. The suits contend that the companies engaged in campaigns to undermine climate science and mislead the public on the role of fossil fuels. In each, the cases were filed in state courts. But fossil fuel companies are fighting to have them heard in federal court, where they have largely been successful in fending off earlier climate lawsuits. 

Baltimore’s case is now the furthest along of the climate liability tort cases. These suits demand that fossil fuel companies help pay for costs associated with climate impacts they knew their products would cause. 

“This is a win for the City of Baltimore, bringing us one step closer to putting the high costs of adapting to and surviving the harmful consequences of climate change where they belong: on the fossil fuel companies who knowingly caused the crisis in the first place,” Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis said in response to the Supreme Court’s order. “It is also another step towards justice for the communities harmed by the fossil fuel companies’ actions, who are suffering because that industry continues to hide behind lawyers, lobbyists, public relations firms, and an avalanche of misinformation. The City of Baltimore is ready to prove its case in state court.” 

The Supreme Court’s order clears the way for trial preparations in each case, including discovery. In Maryland state court, the companies’ appeal of Hollander’s remand decision is still pending, with oral arguments scheduled in the Fourth Circuit for Dec. 11.

The First Circuit will hear the companies’ appeal of Rhode Island’s case and the Tenth Circuit will consider the Colorado case.

A Chevron spokesman said the company had no comment on the Supreme Court order. The National Association of Manufacturers, which has vehemently opposed climate liability lawsuits and filed an amicus brief supporting the fossil fuel companies, did not respond to a request for comment. 

In order for the Supreme Court to grant a stay, applicants are required to meet several criteria, including demonstrating they will be irreparably harmed if a stay is denied. Several climate law experts told Climate Liability News it was clear the companies did not meet these standards, which are intentionally strict.

“I’m not surprised,” said UCLA law professor Ann Carlson, who has contributed pro-bono consulting to some of the California plaintiffs in other climate liability lawsuits. “The case doesn’t impose any harm on the defendants other than having to engage in discovery, which is not a harm the Court would concern itself with.” 

Patrick Parenteau, professor at Vermont Law School, said the companies could try again to have the Supreme Court intervene but it is unlikely to usurp the appeals process in the lower courts. 

“I do think they will try again as soon as one of the circuits issues a decision,” he said. “The companies could try before that if discovery really heats up in one of the remanded cases but I doubt that would be enough to prod the Supreme Court to intervene. The costs and inconvenience to some of the world’s largest corporations hardly amounts to irreparable harm.” 

Attorney Vic Sher of the firm Sher Edling, which is involved in some of the climate liability cases including Baltimore, Rhode Island and a set of California communities, said he was pleased to see the Supreme Court reaffirm the lower courts’ refusal to stay proceedings. 

“We’re glad to see the Supreme Court reject the fossil fuel company defendants’ attempts to deny Baltimore its day in court,” he said. “The Supreme Court, three U.S. District Court judges, and three U.S. Courts of Appeals all agree that further delays are unwarranted. It’s time for these cases to get ready for trial.” 

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