Like throwing darts at a board, plaintiffs’ attorneys are pitching climate liability litigation across the country hoping to secure a large settlement and hold fossil fuel companies liable for damages they allege were caused by climate change.
After numerous dismissals on similar litigation efforts, trial attorneys have now set their eyes on South Florida – and it’s not for vacation. They are hoping for a bullseye in a state that is vulnerable to sea level rise and was recently crowned a “judicial hellhole” for its “unfair and unbalanced” laws by American Tort Reform Foundation.
EarthRights International (ERI) and Sher Edling have been meeting with public officials in South Florida to recruit municipalities to stand in as plaintiffs – offering their services on a pro-bono and contingency fee basis.
These efforts are being supported by a coordinated public relations campaign in the various cities. The orchestrated business endeavor is causing concern for many and raising ethical questions amongst some public officials.
Rockefeller-funded organization pitches Fort Lauderdale
On October 23rd, 2018 EarthRights International (ERI) – the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit spearheading climate litigation in Colorado – pitched city leaders in Ft. Lauderdale. During the question-and-answer session, ERI general counsel Marco Simons disclosed that ERI has been in touch with five different “major South Florida municipalities” about filing a climate lawsuit “over the last year.”
ERI is funded by many of the wealthy foundations bankrolling the #ExxonKnew campaign – including the Rockefeller Family Fund, Oak Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Rockefellers have financed the research and reporting that laid the groundwork for these lawsuits, and recently admitted to supporting the climate litigation campaign.
Sher Edling violates ethics and lobbying laws in its pursuit of Miami and Miami Beach
Sher Edling, LLP, a San Francisco-based plaintiff’s firm representing ten municipalities across the country on a contingency fee basis, has also flocked to the sunshine state for a piece of the action. Emails obtained through public record requests confirm Sher Edling is pursuing the City of Miami and Miami Beach.
Sher Edling attempted to evade complying with public records and lobbying registration laws while communicating with Miami Beach. Chuck Savitt, Director of Strategic Client Relationships for Sher Edling, moved conversations with public officials offline, specifically to skirt open records requests.
Continuing in his disregard for the law, Savitt failed to register as a lobbyist before communicating with Miami Beach public officials.
Miami Beach has very strict lobbying laws:
Those who wish to “encourage the passage, defeat or modification of any ordinance, resolution, action or decision of any commissioner; any action, decision, recommendation of the City Manager or any City board or committee; or any action, decision or recommendation of any City personnel during the time period of the entire decision-making process on such action, decision or recommendation that foreseeably will be heard or reviewed by the City Commission, or a City board or committee,” must register and pay an $850 fee.
To date, neither Chuck Savitt, Vic Sher, nor Matt Edling have registered for their lobbying efforts in Miami Beach.
Law firms coordinate with PR and media outlets to pressure cities
Florida public officials aren’t just being approached by lawyers; they are also the target of a highly coordinated public relations effort, which is being supported by the very organizations pitching these lawsuits.
While ERI was busy meeting with local officials, their PR firm was placing billboards advertisements encouraging Miami to sue fossil fuel companies.
On March 6, 2018, Pay Up Climate Polluters, a campaign pressuring cities to take action against the fossil fuel industry, launched their Miami operation, working in tandem with the Miami Climate Alliance to purchase several billboards throughout the city. Their listed point of contact on the press release was Kyle Moler of M+R, who was hired by EarthRights International to promote their lawsuits in Colorado.
Pay Up Climate Polluters is run by Richard Wiles, an activist deeply involved in all aspects of the climate litigation campaign. Wiles also publishes a news site and produces a podcast, which further amplify these lawsuits.
Floridians could be hurt by litigation
Despite repeated dismissals across the country, litigants are determined to find willing plaintiffs and friendly courts in the hopes of securing a settlement rivaling the payout from Big Tobacco. Now, out-of-state lawyers are resorting to skirting ethics and lobbying laws to target the Sunshine State. Their litigious efforts come at the cost of taxpayers and threaten to distract policy makers from real solutions focused on combatting climate change.