Climate-related litigation gains steam

More than 1,100 lawsuits against climate change have been filed in the U.S., according to Columbia Law School. Such lawsuits could become even more prevalent, experts surmise.

A report issued by Clyde & Co law firm predicts an increase in product liability claims against companies that contribute to climate change or fail to minimize or report on risks.

Three types of lawsuits

Clyde & Co believes the legal ramifications will fall into three categories: Securities class actions, derivative actions and tort claims.

Securities class actions can be brought against companies and leadership to compensate for losses they have incurred. For example, Ramirez v. Exxon Mobil Corp. alleges the company knew of the effects of its products on the climate for more than 50 years yet hid and misrepresented the facts.

Boards of directors can face derivative actions if shareholders believe they have breached their fiduciary duties and placed their companies in line to be harmed by climate change or by lawsuits that result from climate change.

Tort actions have two potential pitfalls: They are being filed in separate state courts which increases the difficulty in defending against them, and while they are similar to the lawsuits filed against tobacco and asbestos manufacturers, the potential that finding petroleum is a defective product could disrupt the global economy, the Clyde & Co report said.

Several current lawsuits

The attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts have sued Exxon over climate change and its role in it.

Earlier this year, the federal court and the Massachusetts Supreme Court have derailed Exxon's attempts to halt the lawsuits and investigations.

Meanwhile, Our Children's Trust sued in 2015, citing the public trust doctrine, followed by nine similar lawsuits filed in state courts. Some of the state lawsuits have been dismissed whole others are ongoing.

The U.S. Justice Department has filed petitions to halt the lawsuit and to rule on the case without a trial. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay while considering the Justice Department's petition. It lifted the stay Nov. 2, followed by a federal appeals court which issued a stay on Nov. 8 to consider the government's petition.

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