Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

'Super tort' might represent failure of public policymaking, but is only tip of melting iceberg

First Circuit remands R.I. suit against Big Oil for public nuisance

Super Tort
(pxhere.com CC0)
A "super tort" sounds delicious.  Indeed, the term refers more often to food than to a theory of civil liability.  Maybe that's why the term animated headlines recently when the defense-friendly American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) used it in an amicus brief to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

In October, ATRA filed its brief on the side of Johnson & Johnson's appeal of a $465m trial verdict of public nuisance liability in the opioid epidemic.  In the brief, ATRA warned that the award represented a "new species of public nuisance [that] will devour all of Oklahoma tort law and, with it, who knows how many businesses."  ATRA explained (my bold):

Since its inception, public nuisance has played a circumscribed role in Oklahoman—indeed, American—jurisprudence. It originated as a property-based tort used to remedy invasions of public lands or shared resources like highways and waterways. The trial court ignored that history, transforming public nuisance into a super tort that exposes Oklahoma businesses to unlimited liability for a broad array of public issues that are far removed from traditional public nuisances.

ATRA further argued its position in terms of the separation of powers, or, classically stated, Aristotelian justice:

The decision will also chill business activity throughout the state for fear that any product linked to a perceived social problem may lead to astronomical and disproportionate liability. It is not the judiciary's role to create a new tort to address social problems. That job belongs to the legislature, which can weigh competing policy factors and study the possible consequences of expanding traditional nuisance law.

Lead paint can
(Thester11 CC BY 3.0)
This isn't the first time ATRA has bemoaned the emergence of a public nuisance "super tort."  Among other tort-reform advocates, defense attorney Phil Goldberg used the term in 2008 and in 2018 to describe lead paint liability.  On the former occasion, echoed in an industry legal brief and in legal scholarship, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island had just rejected industry liability for lead paint on grounds that the defendants had no control over the product at the time it caused harm to children.  An ATRA leader warned of "super tort" in the climate change context as early as 2011 (States News Serv., Apr. 18, 2011 (quoting Tiger Joyce)). (Inapposite here, Patrick O'Callaghan, University College Cork, used the term "super tort" in the Irish Law Times in 2006 to describe potential excess in invasion-of-privacy liability.)

Nevertheless, public nuisance is the leading theory with which the State of Rhode Island now demands that oil companies pay for the past and future consequences of climate change.  Rhode Island alleges theories of product liability and public trust, in addition to public nuisance.  The state's suit is just one of many filed by state and local governments against Big Oil.  The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, at Columbia Law School, tracks all U.S. litigation on climate change, including the Rhode Island suit

Just last week, the First Circuit remanded the Rhode Island suit to state court, rejecting industry claims of federal preemption.  Meanwhile, the case in state court is on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court ponders the outer constitutional limits of personal jurisdiction.  The Court's ruling in an otherwise unrelated case, which I wrote about in April and the Court heard this fall, has ramifications for Rhode Island's thin assertion of jurisdiction over transnational oil defendants.

Over the summer, I spoke about the expansive approach to public nuisance that resulted in the colossal Oklahoma award against Johnson & Johnson and that leads government claims against Big Oil over climate change.  Corporate objections voiced by ATRA, based in Aristotelian justice, are legitimate.  Ironically, as I discussed briefly in my lecture, I see this resort to the courts as an understandable expression of public frustration with corporate capture of our political branches of government.

The Rhode Island complaint images industry-sponsored public service announcements that sewed doubt about climate change and the role of fossil fuel.

Yet despite my skepticism, as a Rhode Islander and a taxpayer, I find the allegations in the state's 2018 complaint awfully persuasive.  The climate science is neatly summarized with color charts, and I'm a sucker for a color chart.  More dispassionately persuasive of moral responsibility on the part of industry, though, are excerpts of trade association advertising that downplayed, if not mocked, climate change science at a time when the industry must have known better.  The ads are eerily reminiscent of Big Tobacco efforts to downplay the risks of smoking for decades through the selectively scientific work of the Tobacco Institute.  That makes me wonder that product liability and consumer protection might be the states' and localities' best approach, not to mention a more doctrinally conservative strategy, and therefore judicially appealing approach, compared with a no-holds-barred theory of public nuisance—if we must rely on the courts alone, after all.

We might ought worry that "super tort" will devour our rational framework of civil liability.  But rather than reject industry responsibility and liability outright, we should add "super tort" to our lately exploded catalog of reasons to examine how and why our political institutions have failed to protect the environment, public health, and human life.

The case in Rhode Island state court is Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp., No. PC-2018-4716 (Bristol County, R.I. Super. Ct. filed July 2, 2018).  The case in the First Circuit was Rhode Island v. Shell Oil Prod. Co., No. 19-1818 (1st Cir. Oct. 29, 2020).

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