Climate tort plaintiffs cannot catch a break in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In a May 14, 2013, decision, the Fifth Circuit found—once again—that a group of Mississippi Gulf Coast property owners is barred from alleging that energy companies tortiously emitted greenhouse gases (“GHGs”). 

The case, Ned Comer, et al. v. Murphy Oil USA, et al., has a long and twisting history and at one point was widely viewed as being in the vanguard of a small handful of cases with the potential to radically realign the legal framework under which companies emit GHGs. 

Comer was originally filed in the Southern District of Mississippi in 2005.  Plaintiff coastal property owners alleged that the defendant companies’ emissions exacerbated climate change, which intensified Hurricane Katrina, which in turn damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Invoking the federal courts’ jurisdiction over state law claims between citizens of different states, the plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages asserting state law claims of nuisance, trespass, and negligence, among other claims. The district court dismissed the claims on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the matter was not justiciable under the political question doctrine. 

In November 2009, a Fifth Circuit panel reversed, in part, the district court’s dismissal of the claims.  The Fifth Circuit panel found that plaintiffs had standing to bring state law public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims challenging energy sector emissions of GHGs and that the claims did not present political questions. 

The Fifth Circuit panel’s decision came in the wake of the Second Circuit’s precedent-setting September 2009 decision in State of Connecticut, et al. v. American Electric Power Company Inc., et al., in which the Second Circuit recognized the validity of federal common law public nuisance claims challenging the emission of GHGs, found that a number of states and private environmental groups had standing to press such claims, and rejected the argument that the claims are nonjusticiable.  Together, these cases were viewed as potentially ushering in a new era in which companies emitting GHGs would need to contend not just with EPA’s regulations but also with common law climate tort claims seeking injunctive relief or money damages.

The new era was not to be.  As to Comer, before the panel opinion’s mandate issued, a majority of the Fifth Circuit’s active, unrecused judges voted to rehear the case en banc.  Under Fifth Circuit rules at the time, this vacated the panel opinion reversing the district court’s dismissal.  Before the Fifth Circuit reheard the case en banc, however, another Fifth Circuit judge was recused, leaving the court with only eight active, unrecused judges.  Five of the remaining eight judges then determined that, with the additional recusal, the court lacked a quorum to proceed, and the judges issued in May 2010 an order dismissing the plaintiffs’ appeal from the district court’s decision for lack of a quorum. 

Plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking review of the Fifth’s Circuit dismissal of their appeal.  The Supreme Court denied the petition in January 2011, at which point one might have expected the case to be over. 

However, the same group of property owners proceeded to file a new complaint in May 2011 alleging many of the same nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims against the same energy company defendants.  The District Court again dismissed the claims, finding them to be barred by res judicata and the applicable statute of limitations, and also to fail to establish proximate causation and be preempted by the Clean Air Act.  In addition, as it had in Comer I, the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the claims raised nonjusticiable political questions. 

The Fifth Circuit’s May 2013 decision in Comer II upholds the district court’s dismissal of the climate tort claims.  The Fifth Circuit found dispositive the doctrine of res judicata—the principle that a controversy, once decided, shall remain in repose—and did not address the district court’s other grounds for dismissal.  Despite the procedural quirks of Comer I, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s decision in that case to represent a final judgment, never modified on appeal.  In addition, the Fifth Circuit found the district court’s final judgment to be on the merits because it adjudicated the jurisdictional issues of standing and justiciability. 

Fall of 2009 may turn out to have been an apogee of sorts for climate tort claims.  In June 2011, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, holding that the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of GHG emissions.  Climate tort plaintiff in a third case, Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., et al., were also on the losing end of a September 2012 Ninth Circuit panel decision which found the plaintiffs’ claims that climate change would result in erosion and flooding of the island where they live to be a matter that should be left to the legislative and executive branches of government.  The Kivalina plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court in February for a writ of certiorari. 

As GHG levels in the atmosphere approach their highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years or longer, the prospects for new legislative or executive branch action are uncertain.  Although California recently implemented an economy-wide GHG cap and trade scheme which began imposing compliance obligations earlier this year, there appears to be little appetite for comprehensive federal climate change legislation.  EPA proposed in April 2012 a GHG performance standard for new power plants pursuant to its Clean Air Act authority, but the timing for action with respect to existing power plants and other emitting sectors is unclear.  In light of the uncertainty on the regulatory and legislative fronts, and given the massive alleged harms involved, it may be too early to say if the climate tort is essentially finished or will in the future be resuscitated in a new and more potent guise.