Supreme Court denies appeal from Big Oil, sending Baltimore climate change suit to state court

Madeleine O'Neill//April 24, 2023

Supreme Court denies appeal from Big Oil, sending Baltimore climate change suit to state court

By Madeleine O'Neill

//April 24, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a jurisdictional question from oil companies fighting a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by the city of Baltimore over climate change.

The Supreme Court’s denial is a victory for Baltimore and for other state and local governments that have repeatedly asked to keep their climate change lawsuits in state courts, where both sides agree the governments stand a better chance of winning large damages than in federal court.

The city’s lawsuit accuses fossil-fuel companies of misleading the public about the harmful contributions that their energy-generating activities made toward climate change.

The 2018 lawsuit, which was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, seeks millions of dollars of damages for alleged violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, as well as products liability, public nuisance and trespass.

“This was the right decision, and it is time to prepare for trial,” said Sara Gross, who heads the Affirmative Litigation Division in Baltimore’s Law Department.

“Since we filed this case nearly five years ago, the climate crisis has worsened, the costs to Baltimore taxpayers are skyrocketing, and the defendants have pocketed trillions of dollars in profits while trying to dodge accountability for their deception,” Gross said.

The oil companies argued that they had a common law right to have their case heard in federal court because the harm alleged in Baltimore’s lawsuit arose from operations outside of Maryland.

The companies, which are facing similar lawsuits in many other states, deny the city’s claims and have repeatedly tried to have the cases moved into federal courts.

U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander remanded the Baltimore case to the city’s Circuit Court in June 2019, saying the city’s state law claims did not implicate federal jurisdiction after the oil companies sought to remove the case.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her decision, but the Supreme Court in May 2021 sent the case back to the appellate court, ruling that the 4th Circuit had applied too narrow a standard for federal court jurisdiction over the city’s lawsuit.

The 4th Circuit rejected the oil companies’ arguments again in April 2022, leading to the companies’ second appeal to the high court.

“The impacts of climate change undoubtedly have local, national, and international ramifications,” Senior Judge Henry F. Floyd wrote for the 4th Circuit.

“But those consequences do not necessarily confer jurisdiction upon federal courts carte blanche,” Floyd wrote. “In this case, a municipality has decided to exclusively rely upon state-law claims to remedy its own climate-change injuries, which it perceives were caused, at least in part, by defendants’ fossil-fuel products and strategic misinformation campaign. These claims do not belong in federal court.”

The oil companies’ appellate attorney, Kannon K. Shanmugam, did not immediately respond to a phone message requesting comment Monday.

The companies being sued by Baltimore include BP America Inc., Chevron Corp., CITGO Petroleum Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Exxon Mobil Corp., Hess Corp., Marathon Petroleum Corp., Phillips 66 and Shell Oil Co.

The court’s ruling also affected cases from California, Colorado, Hawaii and Rhode Island. But more than a dozen similar suits are pending in state courts around the country claiming that oil and gas produced by the companies led to greenhouse gas emissions, which contributed to global climate change and caused harm locally.

Among the justices, Brett Kavanaugh voted to have the Supreme Court take up the issue. Justice Samuel Alito did not participate, presumably because he holds investments in energy companies.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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