A federal judge put the last nail in the coffin of San Francisco’s and Oakland’s climate change lawsuits on Friday when he dismissed the cases on grounds of personal jurisdiction, ruling that the California cities failed to prove that their alleged injuries would not have occurred if it were not for the energy companies’ California-based operations.
The decision followed a June 25 ruling in which the judge dismissed the cases on separate grounds, observing that the regulation of greenhouse gases is a matter for Congress or the executive branch, not the courts, to decide.
In his latest ruling, U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote that in order for San Francisco and Oakland to hold the energy companies accountable, “[their] claim must be one which ‘arises out of or relates to’ the defendants forum-related activities,” or their business operations exclusively conducted in California. It was up to the cities to meet this burden of proof – and they failed:
“It is manifest that global warming would have continued in the absence of all California-related activities of defendants. Plaintiffs have therefore failed to adequately link each defendants’ alleged California activities to plaintiffs’ harm.” (emphasis added)
Judge Alsup, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, also noted that even if none of the defendants operated in California, the effects of climate change felt throughout the state (as alleged by the plaintiffs) would be no different:
“The gravamen of the amended complaints is that defendants – all alleged to be multinational oil and gas companies – have contributed to global warming through the worldwide production and sale of fossil fuels. From all that appears in the amended complaints, however, this worldwide chain of events does not depend on a particular defendant’s contacts with California. Rather, whatever sales or events occurred in California were causally insignificant in the context of the worldwide conduct leading to the international problem of global warming.” (emphasis added)
Judge Alsup’s ruling is particularly timely, considering the companies his decision in these cases freed from liability also filed motions to dismiss in a virtually identical case in King County, Washington, back in May. Similarly, none of the defendants who moved for the case to be dismissed in King County have significant operations in the area.
ExxonMobil, a defendant in both the California and Washington cases, emphasized how King County’s argument for personal jurisdiction fails not only to attribute carbon emissions to the company itself, but also fails to trace any impact of climate change back to the county or even the state:
“…the Complaint fails to relate any particular climate-related injury – whether a storm surge or generalized sea level rise – to any particular carbon emissions in the State of Washington or elsewhere. Nor does the Complaint plead any link between such emissions and any particular emitter or, as necessary for Plaintiff’s claims, to any conduct of the defendant fossil fuel producers or marketers.”
Judge Alsup’s latest ruling is another devastating blow to Matt Pawa and his fellow attorneys at Hagens Berman, one of the two law firms representing municipalities in several climate change lawsuits being filed across the country. The King County case, however, is Hagens Berman’s only remaining active case.
After what just happened in California, however, Mr. Pawa and Hagens Berman may be shopping for new clients sooner rather than later.