The California Senate has shelved, at least for now, a bill that would lay the groundwork for a campaign of lawsuits against so-called climate deniers. The California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016 (Senate Bill 1161), which had passed two committee hurdles, would retrospectively lift what is now a four-year statute of limitations so as to allow unlimited lawsuits under the state’s notoriously pro-plaintiff Unfair Competition Law, or s. 17200, over advocacy related to climate change. While the deadline has now passed for the bill to be enacted on its own under ordinary legislative procedure, it could still pass this year under “gut-and-amend” procedures or a rules waiver. [Valerie Richardson/Washington Times and earlier, Andrew Stuttaford/National Review, Watts Up with That, thanks for quotes in all; earlier]
An extraordinary bill in the California legislature, promoted as making it easier to sue fossil fuel companies over their involvements in public debate, would lift the four-year statute of limitations of the state’s already extremely liberal Unfair Competition Law, otherwise known as s. 17200 — and retrospectively, so as to revive decades’ worth of time-lapsed claims “with respect to scientific evidence regarding the existence, extent, or current or future impacts of anthropogenic induced anthropogenic-induced climate change.” Despite a 2004 round of voter-sponsored reform which curbed some of its worst applications, s. 17200 still enables what a California court called “legal shakedown” operations in which “ridiculously minor” violations serve as the predicate for automatic entitlement to damages, attorneys’ fees, and other relief.
Combined with the plans laid by California Attorney General Kamala Harris — part of the alliance of AGs that has sought to investigate not only oil, gas, and coal companies, but private advocacy groups and university scientists who have played a role in what is characterized as “climate denial” — the bill would begin laying the legal groundwork for an astonishingly broad campaign of inquisition and, potentially, expropriation. The bill was approved by a subcommittee and was further amended May 10 to provide that climate science-related claims of any age would begin a four-year reviver period as of next January. [Northern California Record; the left-leaning Union of Concerned Scientists has a piece supporting the bill]
Section 2(b) of the bill declares it the California legislature’s policy to promote “redress for unfair competition practices committed by entities that have deceived, confused, or misled the public on the risks of climate change or financially supported activities that have deceived, confused, or misled the public on those risks” [emphasis added] — a very clear signal that the target is public issue advocacy, and not merely (say) advertising that is directed at consumers in their capacity as buyers of gasoline at the pump. Last month, a federal court slapped down, as an unconstitutional burden on First Amendment rights, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s demand for the donor lists of nonprofits that carry on operations in California.
Problem #1: children abused by clergy decades ago are demanding recognition from the civil justice system; it’s not about the money they say, but justice.
Problem #2: simply reviving 35-year-old tort claims that are otherwise barred by the statute of limitations, aside from the basic unfairness and loss of legal certainty to others, encourages fraud on and error by the judicial system.
Solution, in Ohio S.B. 17, passed in May 2006:
I have an op-ed in today’s National Review Online:
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States this week will be the first papal visit since the Roman Catholic Church abuse scandal broke in 2002. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s top diplomat in the United States, expresses confidence that the pope will address the scandal while here. Trial lawyers, however, having been asking legislatures for years to address the problem in their own particular way: more lawsuits. That proposed solution, through undoing statutes of limitations and permitting new lawsuits over long-ago crimes, creates more problems than it solves, and hurts more than just the actors responsible for those crimes.
Reviver legislation is pending in six states, and has been proposed in many more.
My latest Liability Outlook examines the problems of retroactive lawmaking and litigation, especially reviver statutes, and even Obama fans will find something to like:
The controversy over whether and how to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations at the Democratic National Convention shows the danger of changing rules midstream and upsetting settled expectations. Reviver statutes not only obviate statutes of limitations, which are a critical aid to justice, by “reviving” claims that have expired or never existed, but they can also pose the danger of undoing the benefits of future prospective legislation. In evaluating laws, the issue is not merely one of retroactivity, but of the importance of promoting legal certainty. For example, the FISA Amendments Act, S. 2248, while ostensibly acting retroactively to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration’s antiterror surveillance program, works to protect settled expectations.
Among matters discussed: litigation against the Catholic church over child abuse by priests and the Michigan legislature’s proposed retroactive repeal of pharmaceutical tort reform in H.R. 4045. Walter has previously discussed the subject.