Case dismissed: The community of Kivalina, Alaska lost its bid to sue oil companies over its  shrinking coastline. (Coast Guard photo/ Lt. Cdr. Micheal McNeil)

First they tried suing the utility companies. Then they tried suing the automakers. They even tried suing oil companies on behalf of an Alaskan village in danger of being inundated by oil-fueled rising sea levels.

Each approach ended when courts said that the judiciary branch wasn’t the right place to address human-induced global warming, a problem so big it requires a coordinated international response that only legislators can implement.

Now private plaintiff lawyers and their allies in government are trying a new strategy: Suing under state-law theories of public nuisance. San Francisco and several other California cities and counties have sued five major oil companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, claiming they knowingly sell products that, when burned, emit greenhouse gases.

New York City filed its own lawsuit against those same companies on Jan. 10, saying they are “collectively responsible, through their production, marketing, and sale of fossil fuels, for over 11% of all the carbon and methane pollution from industrial sources that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.”

Critical to these new lawsuits is a theory that seems to have been borrowed from other areas of tort law. To make the case that oil companies should pay for the flooding and other costs associated with global warming, the cities argue the oil companies knew the risks associated with their products and sold them anyway.

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Categories: The Law