16 island towns sue fossil fuel firms for hurricane damages
By The Star Staff
More than a dozen municipalities in Puerto Rico have filed a class action lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for their alleged role in the 2017 hurricane season that devastated the island, causing billions in damages and leaving thousands dead, according to a statement from Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman LLC on Monday.
The first-of-its-kind lawsuit seeks financial compensation from oil and coal companies for marketing and selling carbon-based products that they intentionally misrepresented to the public, according to the suit. It describes how companies that include Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Arch Coal worked together to publicly conceal the climate risk changes from their products while internally acting on climate science to safeguard their own assets. The municipalities are represented by the aforementioned law firm.
“Puerto Rico was hit by the perfect storm and is the ultimate victim of global warming,” Milberg partner Marc Grossman said. “This is an opportunity to finally get justice for all that Puerto Rico sacrificed in 2017.”
The municipalities of Bayamón, Caguas, Loíza, Lares, Barranquitas, Comerío, Cayey, Las Marías, Trujillo Alto, Vega Baja, Añasco, Cidra, Aguadilla, Aibonito, Morovis and Moca seek to recover damages from the defendant oil and coal companies for 2017 storm losses, including social, educational and economic losses.
Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primarily in the form of CO2, are the main driver of global warming and sea level rise. From 1965 to 2017, the defendant oil and coal companies were responsible for 40.01% of all global industrial GHG emissions, the statement reads.
The defendants knew since the 1970s that these emissions were likely to produce stronger storms that threatened their infrastructure, internal documents show. But instead of transparency, the defendants engaged in a pseudo-scientific campaign to sow doubt about climate change and protect their monopoly over fossil fuel production. Their failure to disclose the truth about their products had disastrous effects for Puerto Rico, which was defenseless against the historically strong hurricanes that hit the island in 2017.
The Global Climate Risk Index 2020 report found Puerto Rico has been affected by climate change more than anywhere else in the world. As the canary in the coalmine for GHG-driven global warming, Puerto Rico has the opportunity to serve as a bellwether for successful oil and coal climate change litigation, according to the lawsuit.
“While Puerto Rico is the ultimate victim and the first victim, it is not the last,” Grossman said. “We are investigating claims by municipalities all over the world coming to the realization that they, along with the rest of the planet, were duped by the fossil fuel industry and now live in grave danger of being the next Puerto Rico.”
To date, climate change litigation against fossil fuel companies has stalled in courts, in part because cases have been based on causes of action preempted by federal law, including the Clean Air Act. The current lawsuit — based on consumer fraud, racketeering, antitrust, products liability, nuisance, and failure-to-warn claims — alleges that the defendants conspired to sell their products in violation of federal and Puerto Rico statutes. The case is supported by research from leading universities, professors and organizations in the field of climate science, and sets a new standard for such claims, the plaintiffs said.
“This complaint rightly seeks redress for the citizens and municipalities harmed by the 2017 hurricanes from parties that knew their business model would accelerate the early onset of storms of higher intensity, yet did nothing to warn the communities of the risk of continued use of their products,” said Richard Heeds of the Climate Accountability Institute. “On the strength of this litigation, it is time to pay the piper.”