- I was part of an informative panel discussion of “Climate Change Litigation and Public Nuisance Lawsuits” organized by the Rule of Law Defense Fund [watch here] Podcast and transcript of an October update on state and municipal climate litigation with Boyden Gray [Federalist Society] And because it’s still relevant, my 2007 WSJ piece (paywalled) on how contingency fees for representing public-sector plaintiffs are an ethical travesty;
- New York securities case against ExxonMobil goes to trial [Daniel Fisher, Legal Newsline; earlier] At last minute, NY Attorney General Letitia James, successor to Eric Schneiderman, drops the two counts requiring proof of intent, which the state had earlier deployed to accuse Exxon of deliberate misrepresentation. Still in play is the state’s unique Martin Act, which allows finding fraud without proof of intent [Nicholas Kusnetz, Inside Climate News]
- Ninth Circuit panel hears “children’s” climate case, Juliana v. U.S. [Federalist Society podcast with James May, Damien Schiff, and Jonathan Adler; related commentary, James Coleman]
- Bernie Sanders doesn’t really need legal arguments for retroactive criminal prosecutions if he’s got Jacobin on his side, right?
- “Lawyers are unleashing a flurry of lawsuits to step up the fight against climate change” [Darlene Ricker, ABA Journal]
- Who’s backing Extinction Rebellion, the lawbreaking group that blocked intersections in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere this fall? “The answer, in part, is the scions of some of America’s most famous families, including the Kennedys and the Gettys.” [John Schwartz, New York Times]
Can the lawful sale of products be retrospectively declared a “public nuisance” and tagged with enormous damages, based on theories that the products caused harm after being used by third parties not in court? Before such theories succeeded in an Oklahoma courtroom against Johnson & Johnson over its promotion of opioid painkillers, they had been unsuccessfully deployed against the makers of guns used in crime, while another set of recent lawsuits attempts to deploy them in hopes of making the sellers of fossil fuels pay for the harms of climate change. Scott Keller, Houston Chronicle/Texans for Lawsuit Reform:
Public nuisance claims traditionally have been limited to conduct interfering with truly public rights. For example, courts for decades have recognized public nuisance claims brought by governments to remove impediments from their public highways or waterways. Even then, courts generally did not recognize such claims where a legislature or administrative agency had already regulated an industry. After all, if the political branches of government regulated an industry, then they were telling courts what did and did not qualify as an unlawful “nuisance.”
But a series of recent lawsuits wants courts to ignore these limits on public nuisance claims and obliterate entire industries. These lawsuits seek to massively expand what counts as a public right, and they want courts to destroy companies that are already complying with existing regulations.
Similarly: “’A loss on the public nuisance theory in the Oklahoma opioid public nuisance theory would have been a potentially devastating state court precedent for the climate change public nuisance cases now pending in state courts,’ said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard.” [Dino Grandoni, Washington Post]
Which raises a question: when trial lawyers were pitching Oklahoma politicos on the large sums to be gained by pursuing strained public nuisance theories against opioid makers, do you think they mentioned that the theories if embraced might work to shut down the locally popular oil and gas business?
“A judge in Oklahoma on Monday ruled that Johnson & Johnson had intentionally played down the dangers and oversold the benefits of opioids, and ordered it to pay the state $572 million.” The state had asked for $17 billion. [Jan Hoffman, New York Times and sidebar on why J&J, the deepest pocket, was the only defendant left standing in the Oklahoma case; opinion; Paul Demko, Politico; Lenny Bernstein, Washington Post] Caleb Brown interviewed me for the Cato Daily Podcast:
For other skeptical views of the case, see Daniel Fisher, Legal NewsLine (“J&J had about 3% market share, sold abuse-resistant drugs, and Oklahoma didn’t present evidence of a single doctor who was misled by its marketing.”) and followup (problems with state’s legal theory), Jeffrey Singer/Cato, and Jacob Sullum, Reason (sweeping definition of public nuisance) and followup (other problems). [More: Jonathan Turley]
Particularly worth noting is Jacob Sullum’s account of the logical path traced by Judge James Hill in North Dakota in recently dismissing a suit against Purdue Pharma:
One of the claims against the company involved a public nuisance statute very similar to Oklahoma’s. Hill noted that “North Dakota courts have not extended the nuisance statute to cases involving the sale of goods.” He cited a 1993 case in which the Tioga Public School District #15 of Williams County, North Dakota, argued that the sale of acoustical plaster containing asbestos qualified as a public nuisance.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which handled the case because it involved an out-of-state defendant, observed that “North Dakota cases applying the state’s nuisance statute all appear to arise in the classic context of a landowner or other person in control of property conducting an activity on his land in such a manner as to interfere with the property rights of a neighbor.” The 8th Circuit worried about the consequences of venturing beyond that “classic context”:
To interpret the nuisance statute in the manner espoused by Tioga would in effect totally rewrite North Dakota tort law. Under Tioga’s theory, any injury suffered in North Dakota would give rise to a cause of action under section 43-02-01 regardless of the defendant’s degree of culpability or of the availability of other traditional tort law theories of recovery. Nuisance thus would become a monster that would devour in one gulp the entire law of tort, a development we cannot imagine the North Dakota legislature intended when it enacted the nuisance statute.
Hill said he “agrees with the reasoning of the Eighth Circuit in Tioga.” As in that case, he said, the state in its lawsuit against Purdue was “clearly seeking to extend the application of the nuisance statute to a situation where one party has sold to another a product that later is alleged to constitute a nuisance.” Hill added:
The reality is that Purdue has no control over its product after it is sold to distributors, then to pharmacies, and then prescribed to consumers, i.e. after it enters the market. Purdue cannot control how doctors prescribe its products and it certainly cannot control how individual patients use and respond to its products, regardless of any warning or instruction Purdue may give.
Judging from the cases cited by Judge Balkman, Oklahoma courts have not read that state’s nuisance law to cover situations like this either—until now.
- “TriMet faulted Laing for failing to heed warning signs … and earbuds playing loud music. Laing’s attorneys argued it couldn’t be determined what volume the music was playing at at the time of impact.” [Aimee Green, Oregonian; $15 million jury verdict for woman who dashed in front of train reduced to $682,800]
- “When Are Athletes Liable for Injuries They Cause?” [Eugene Volokh on Nixon v. Clay, Utah Supreme Court]
- Former Alabama Sen. Luther Strange has written a law review article on local government abuse of public nuisance law in industrywide litigation [Stephen McConnell, Drug and Device Law] “California’s disturbing lead paint ruling is going interstate. Magistrate cites it in opioid MDL to support tribal nuisance claims under Montana law” [Daniel D. Fisher on Blackfeet Tribe v. Amerisource] Federal judge should have said no to Rhode Island climate change/public nuisance suit [Michael Krauss, Forbes]
- “Will New York law change veterinary malpractice?” [Christopher J. Allen, Veterinary News]
- Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on class action counterclaim removal in Home Depot U.S.A. v. Jackson leaves Congress to fix what Judge Paul Niemeyer called a loophole in the Class Action Fairness Act [Diane Flannery, Trent Taylor & Drew Gann, McGuireWoods, Federalist Society teleforum with Ted Frank]
- In Missouri, logjam for liability reform breaks at last as Gov. Mike Parson signs four pieces of legislation into law [Daily Star Journal (Warrensburg, Mo.); Beck on forum-shopping measure]
- The high cost of feel-good laws: why bans on disposable plastic grocery bags are bad for the environment [Greg Rosalsky, NPR “Planet Money”] Not a good move for public health either [Hans Bader on New York’s second-in-the-nation statewide ban, following California] Enjoy your tepid pad thai: Maryland lawmakers move to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) cups and containers for ready-to-go food [Michelle Santiago Cortés, Refinery 21]
- A future President who declared a national emergency over climate change might unlock some far-reaching powers [Jackie Flynn Mogenson, Mother Jones]
- “Waking the Litigation Monster: The Misuse of Public Nuisance,” 48-page report on attempts to legislate by means of novel public nuisance suits [Joshua Payne and Jess Nix, U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform]
- Dim and dimmer: the Washington Post “argues that the policy of imposing energy efficiency standards on lightbulbs ‘has no downside.'” [Peter Van Doren, Cato; earlier] “Appliance Standards Are Expensive, And Regressive Too” [Susan Dudley, Forbes, earlier here, here, etc.]
- Supreme Court “should clarify that courts should consider a property’s prospective economic value when evaluating the just compensation due from regulatory takings” [Ilya Shapiro and Nathan Harvey on Cato amicus in Love Field terminal gate case]
- The “most expensive and least effective environmental law” of all: ideas for fixing NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which mandates environmental impact statements [Mark Rutzick, Federalist Society]
- “Everything would be all renewable all the time if we could just pass the right laws.” The wishful underpinnings of the Green New Deal [Cato Daily Podcast with Caleb Brown and Regulation Magazine editor Peter Van Doren]
- “The U.S. rail system is optimized for freight, vs. European and Japanese systems that are optimized for passengers (it is hard to do both well with the same network). The U.S. situation is actually better, much better, for energy conservation.” [Coyote]
- Federalist Society discussions of climate litigation based on public nuisance theories: National Lawyers Convention panel with David Bookbinder, Eric Grant, James Huffman, Mark W. Smith, moderated by Hon. John K. Bush; “Originally Speaking” written debate with John Baker, Richard Faulk, Dan Lungren, Donald Kochan, Pat Parenteau, David Bookbinder; Boston Lawyers Chapter panel on municipal litigation with Steven Ferrey, Phil Goldberg, Donald Kochan, James R. May, Kenneth Reich] Climate nuisance suits have met with an unfriendly reception in American courts and there is no good rationale for filing copycat claims in Canada [Stewart Muir, Resource Works]
- “Public Universities Exploit Eminent Domain Powers with Little Oversight” [Chris West, Martin Center]
- Many pro-market reforms would reduce the risks to life and property from natural disasters, climate-related and otherwise [Chris Edwards, Cato]
- “On patrol with the enforcer of DC’s plastic-straw ban” [Fenit Nirappil/AP via Peter Bonilla (“Welcome to the worst ride along ever”)]
- Bayer seen as likely to get new trial on punitive-damages side of glyphosate/Roundup loss [Jim Christie and Ludwig Burger, Reuters, earlier]
- Supreme Court declines to review California judgment finding that long-ago advertising of lead paint created public nuisance for which makers are now financially liable [Greg Stohr/Bloomberg, Donald Kochan/Federalist Society, John Sammon/NorCal Record]
- When if ever can you get into federal court with your takings claim? Oral argument in the Knick v. Township of Scott case [Miriam Seifter/SCOTUSBlog, Gideon Kanner, Robert Thomas/Inverse Condemnation first, second, third, fourth posts]
- “Stop trying to get workers out of their cars” [Robert Poole, Jr./Reason]
- “U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Halt Teenagers’ Climate Lawsuit” [Greg Stohr/Bloomberg] “The European Court of Justice has recently ruled that ten private citizens, from Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Kenya, Sweden and Fiji can sue the European Union for negligence in its inaction on climate change.” [Theodore Dalrymple, Law and Liberty]
- “Trump’s EPA is having a hard time in federal court” [Jonathan Adler]
“Judge John F. Keenan of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York wrote that climate change must be addressed by the executive branch and Congress, not by the courts. While climate change ‘is a fact of life,’ Judge Keenan wrote, ‘the serious problems caused thereby are not for the judiciary to ameliorate. Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government.'” Not only was Mayor De Blasio’s widely publicized suit pre-empted by the Clean Air Act, but demands for transnational change are the province of U.S. foreign policy rather than courts [John Schwartz, New York Times] Less than a month ago federal judge William Alsup threw out climate suits by San Francisco and Oakland. Suits of this sort, based on theories of public nuisance law, “have generally been considered long shots.”
I wish some people who ought to know better would stop trying to dress up this sort of legal action as somehow in the historical mainstream of Hayekian common law vindication of private rights. It isn’t, not by a long stretch. It’s an exercise in attempted legislation through the courts.
- Wearing two hats: mayor of Imperial Beach, Calif. suing oil companies is also with an environmentalist group [Ben Wolfgang, Washington Times] “Cross Examination Is Going To Be Brutal” given local officials’ earlier statements [Karen Kidd, Forbes, citing Richard Epstein]
- Municipalities’ suits ignore important goal of California law “that emissions should be reduced, not simply shifted out of state due to high costs and burdensome regulations” [Dorothy Rothrock (CMTA), Sacramento Bee]
- Washington Legal Foundation webinar on public nuisance suits with Richard Faulk of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and Neil Merkl of Kelley Drye & Warren LLP;
- “Schwarzenegger to Sue Big Oil for ‘First Degree Murder’” [Edward Isaac-Dovere, Politico]
- “What is a non-mood-affiliated way to get up to speed on climate change issues?” [Tyler Cowen and commenters; brief Cowen explainer on mood affiliation]
- “Whether it is lawsuits against opioid manufacturers or lawsuits against oil companies, public policy should be crafted in the statehouse, not the courthouse.” [David Yates, Southeast Texas Record]
- On California Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk: “Bill punishes cities that have transparent labor process” [Steven Greenhut, San Diego Union-Tribune]
- “Jeweler tries to sue anonymous woman who left 1-star Yelp review” [Joe Mullin, ArsTechnica]
- Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has put out a new draft of First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) minus some provisions that I and others had sharply criticized. Does it fix enough? [draft; Lee letter in NYT; National Review editors, arguing on behalf of new draft]
- Local ordinances deeming properties a nuisance if they get frequent police calls pressure landlords to evict domestic violence victims [Jessica Mason Pieklo, RH Reality Check on ACLU lawsuit against city of Surprise, Arizona]
- Wisconsin: “This is a slippery slope when the government starts telling parents whether or not their teenagers can get a sun tan” [AP/Dubuque, Ia., Telegraph Herald]
- “Chinese Nail Salon Owners: ‘Shame on You New York Times!'” [Jim Epstein, Reason, earlier]
- And still she won’t resign: “Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspends Attorney General Kane’s law license” [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, earlier]