Class Action Defense Cases–Comer v. Murphy Oil: Fifth Circuit Reinstates Class Action Alleging Global Warming Exacerbated Damage Caused By Hurricane Katrina

Oct 21, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Class Action Alleging Defendants’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions Contributed to Global Warming thereby Increasing Ferocity of Hurricane Katrina Improperly Dismissed because Plaintiffs had Standing to Assert Class Action’s Nuisance, Trespass and Negligence Claims and these Claims did not Present Nonjusticiable Political Questions Fifth Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against numerous defendants seeking damages arising from Hurricane Katrina; the class action complaint, filed on behalf of property owners on the Mississippi Gulf coast, alleged that “defendants’ operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries in the United States caused the emission of greenhouse gasses that contributed to global warming, viz., the 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, which combined to destroy the plaintiffs’ private property, as well as public property useful to them.” Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009) (Slip Opn., at 1). The class action complaint sought “compensatory and punitive damages based on Mississippi common-law actions of public and private nuisance, trespass, negligence, unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy.” Id., at 2. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action on the grounds of that plaintiffs lacked standing and that the class action claims constituted “nonjusticiable political questions.” Id. The district court granted defendants’ motion and dismissed the class action, id. The Fifth Circuit reversed as to the nuisance, trespass and negligence, concluding that plaintiffs had standing and that the claims do not “present nonjusticiable political questions,” but affirmed the dismissal of the class action’s remaining claims. Id., at 3.

The Circuit Court spent a considerable amount of time on the question of standing, see Comer, at 3-17, but we do not here discuss that aspect of the opinion in detail. We note only that the Fifth Circuit concluded that the class action’s “nuisance, trespass and negligence claims…clearly satisfied the…constitutional minimum standing requirements” because “[t]hese state common-law tort claims, in which plaintiffs allege that they sustained actual, concrete injury in fact to their particular lands and property, can be redressed by the compensatory and punitive damages they seek for those injuries.” Id., at 7-8. The question, then, was “whether any of those claims present a nonjusticiable political question, as the district court believed they did.” Id., at 17. Based on its lengthy analysis, see id., at 18-34, the Circuit Court held that these class action claims could proceed “[b]ecause those claims do not present any specific question that is exclusively committed by law to the discretion of the legislative or executive branch” and accordingly “they are justiciable,” id., at 17. Again, we do not summarize that detailed legal analysis here. Interested readers may find the entire text of the Fifth Circuit opinion below. We simply set forth the Circuit Court’s conclusion, at pages 34 and 35 of the opinion, which states:

The plaintiffs have pleaded sufficient facts to demonstrate standing for their public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims. We decline to find standing for the unjust enrichment, civil conspiracy, and fraudulent misrepresentation claims and DISMISS these claims. We find that the plaintiffs’ remaining claims are justiciable and do not present a political question. We do not hazard, at this early procedural stage, an Erie guess into whether these claims actually state all the elements of a claim under Mississippi tort law, e.g., whether the alleged chain of causation satisfies the proximate cause requirement under Mississippi state common law; we leave this analysis to the district court in the first instance. Thus, for the foregoing reasons, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court and REMAND the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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