Sunday, February 28, 2021

State supreme court upends causation in tort law, promising plenty post-pandemic work for lawyers

"Cause and Effect" by Marina Noordegraaf CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The high court of Massachusetts, in a 3-2 decision, has effected a seismic shift in tort law, adopting on Friday a new approach to legal causation.

The court's holding casts into uncertainty fundamental rules developed over more than a century across the full range of tort liability theories.  Years, even decades of litigation may be required to fully map out the change.

In short, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected the conventional rule of "substantial causation" in favor of analyzing "scope of liability" and "multiple sufficient cause," an approach counseled by the Third Restatement of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm (2010), an influential scholarly treatise published by the nonprofit American Law Institute (ALI).  The court ordered the change for only some cases in negligence, but left open the possibility that the change would affect the whole of tort law in the Commonwealth.

Aristotle by Francesco Hayez (1811)
Cause and Effect

Almost every liability in tort law requires causation.  That is, a defendant is only liable when the plaintiff can prove that her or his injury was caused by the defendant.  But the meaning of cause has been famously elusive in law and a subject of multidisciplinary debate for millennia, spanning Aristotle's metaphysical analytics in 4th century B.C. philosophy, St. Thomas Aquinas's meditation on the existence of God in 13th century theology, and the problem of quantum superposition in 21st century physics.

Causation in law is dominated by the concept of "scientific causation," termed informally "but-for cause," and known also as "factual causation."  To recover, a plaintiff must prove causation by showing that but for the conduct of the defendant, the plaintiff would not have been injured or suffered loss.

Scientific causation goes a long way to providing a legal standard, but not all of the way.  Legal scholars have long recognized that the approach has shortcomings, especially in cases of "overdetermined" causation.  That is, the test sometimes fails to indicate causation in the presence of multiple culpable defendants.  The test also sometimes indicates causation for one defendant, of many, whose culpability is so minimal as to be exonerating.

Image by State Farm (CC BY 2.0)
The classic example of improper failure of causation is a plaintiff's home consumed by two converging fires.  The multiple causes of destruction are said to "overdetermine" the harm.  The jury might conclude that but for either fire, the home would have been consumed anyway by the other fire.  Thus, it seems, neither fire is a but-for cause of the destruction.  At best, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the jury to determine whether either fire was a but-for cause.  Yet it cannot be right that the arsonist who started only one of the fires escapes civil liability.  If either fire by itself would have destroyed the home, then each fire is a "sufficient" cause of the destruction, and that standard supports liability.

Pixabay by Gerd Altmann
In rarer cases, but-for causation indicates causation when common sense suggests otherwise.  Imagine that science one day so masters the complexity of weather systems that it can be proved that but for the beating of a carpet on a Cape Town balcony, a hurricane would not have struck New York ("the butterfly effect," like in time travel, but not really).  The carpet beater might be a scientific cause of the hurricane, but we would be reluctant to say that the carpet beater is responsible for the hurricane.  The principle can be extrapolated to physical systems known to contemporary science, such as human pathology.  Consumption of a single cigarette might be proved to have catalyzed cancer in the plaintiff, alongside other causes, such as genetic predisposition and a history of pipe smoking.  But we might not agree that the proven catalysis by itself is a sufficient reason to charge the cigarette seller with civil liability for the whole of plaintiff's suffering.

To better calibrate the rule of causation to tort liability, American tort law in the 20th century developed the concept of "substantial causation," sometimes, if at risk of imprecision, called "legal causation" or "proximate causation."  Liability came to require that the defendant's conduct was a scientific cause and a substantial cause of the plaintiff's injury, or, in rare cases fitting the fire paradigm, a substantial cause indivisible from other sufficient causes, together constituting a scientific cause.

Pixy (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
A Substantial Disagreement

The rule of substantial causation attracted adherents and opponents.  Adherents said that the concept worked well, because it is understandable to ordinary people, especially jurors.  Tort law is about enforcement of the unwritten social contract.  We, ordinary members of the society, have a shared intuition about when a scientific cause is as powerful as a home-wrecking fire, justifying declaration of a civil wrong.  Likewise, possessed of common sense, we can recognize a trivial scientific cause as an insufficient basis to impose liability.

Precisely so, opponents responded.  Substantial cause invites a jury to disregard proof of scientific causation and to make moral judgments about responsibility.  The rule employs the hopelessly amorphous standard of substantiality to allow juries and courts to make policy and conceal their hubris with the aroma of equitable legitimacy.

The policy-making potential of legal causation was not lost on lawyers and jurists, many of whom embraced it as socially desirable.  One can argue that civil juries, guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment and heralded by Alexis de Tocqueville, if mocked by Mark Twain and Dave Chappelle, are the inspired mechanism with which America democratically injects public policy into the civil trial.

Pixy (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
And although causation devolves to the jury as a question of fact, a court has the power to obviate the need for an expensive jury trial when a question cannot be decided but one way by ordinary minds.  In such circumstances, the question is said to be decided as a matter of law.  Thus, substantiality was termed "legal causation" and offered grounds for a judge to dismiss a case, rather than let the liability question reach the jury.

Judges might be more or less bold or overt in how they exercise power through legal causation, depending on how their jurisprudential philosophies regard the propriety of judicial policy-making.  In a highly regarded paper in 1983, economically minded scholars William Landes and Richard Posner suggested that if the facts of a case point erroneously toward a politico-economically inefficient result, "cause comes to the rescue."  In other words, the rule of legal causation empowers the court to direct the outcome and "the optimal result to be achieved."  (Both Landes and Posner are affiliated with the University of Chicago Law School, known for its commitment to law and economics; Justice Kafker earned his law degree there.)

A Third Way

Substantiality detractors got the better of the argument when the ALI drafted the Third Restatement in the 20-aughts.  The authors did not take policy and pragmatism wholly out of the judicial process, but sought to abate confusion about where they reside by moving them.  The Third Restatement approach moves "legal causation" from the "cause" element of negligence into a new inquiry, "scope of liability."  The similarly ancillary function of the "duty" element of negligence also was moved and merged at this new address, though that's a blog post for another day (and a question left open by the Massachusetts ruling).  The new approach means to give judge and a jury a place to circumscribe defendant liability exposure without the semantic gamesmanship arguably required by the conventional analysis of causation and duty.

The restatement project is often criticized for seeking to progress the law rather than merely restate it.  The line is finer than it might seem.  On this point, one certainly can say that the authors intended to change the law of the states.  At the same time, it's equally defensible to say that the authors sought to help the states to clarify the law, that is, to better state, or restate, what they were doing already.

Pulmonary embolism by Baeder-9439 (CC0 1.0)
A Tale of Two Causes

The case before the Court in Massachusetts involved the death of a patient and two instances of medical malpractice.  Plaintiff Laura Doull died from complications of chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension, or CTEPH.  The jury determined that a nurse practitioner was negligent in failing to diagnose Doull with a pulmonary embolism in 2011, and that Doull's doctor was negligent in supervision of the nurse practitioner.  However, the jury also determined that neither instance of negligence was a but-for cause of Doull's death from CTEPH; in other words, Doull's death was a consequence of her illness and not of anything the nurse practitioner and doctor did, right or wrong.  The defendants were not responsible.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued, among other theories, that the trial judge had not instructed the jury properly.  The trial court had instructed the jury on but-for causation, but not on substantial causation.  All five justices who heard the case for the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the judgment for the defendants.  The court was unanimous in holding that the plaintiff's case must fail, because the jury determined that but-for causation failed.  First, there was no need for the jury to consider legal causation when there was no factual causation.  Second, this case was not about two fires converging on a house.  Though a consequence of two actors, there was only one misdiagnosis.

Justice Kafker
In a majority opinion authored by Justice Scott Kafker and joined by Chief Justice Kimberly Budd and Justice Elspeth Cypher, the court reached the sweeping conclusion that the Commonwealth adopts the Third Restatement approach to causation.  The change makes no difference in the instant case, because but-for causation still is required under the Third Restatement approach, in fact is the nub of what remains in the causation element, legal cause having been removed to scope of liability.  The concurrence, authored by Justice David Lowy and joined by Justice Frank Gaziano, would not have changed the Commonwealth's approach to causation, but would have ruled that the omission of the substantiality instruction was harmless error.

The plaintiff's argument predicated on failure to instruct on substantiality played into the majority's position on the Third Restatement.  Recall that critics of substantiality contend that it invites jurors to disregard scientific evidence and reach a liability determination despite the failure of but-for causation.  Because but-for causation was required, and the jury found it absent, the plaintiff's plea of error suggests that an instruction on legal causation should have been permitted to obfuscate the jury's view of factual causation.  "What originated as an exception to but-for causation would swallow the rule," the majority wrote.  The old approach "blurred the line between factual and legal causation," indeed, "conflates and collapses the concepts of factual and legal causation." 

Image by johnny-automatic (CC0 1.0)
In most cases, the court majority concluded, the but-for instruction on causation alone is sufficient, even when there are multiple potential causes.  "There is nothing preventing the jury from assessing the evidence and determining which of the causes alleged by the plaintiff were actually necessary to bring about the harm, and which had nothing to do with the harm," the majority reasoned, and the jury did just that in the instant case.  As to the paradigmatic two-fire scenario, the court wrote that

in the rare cases presenting the problem of multiple sufficient causes, the jury should receive additional instructions on factual causation.  Such instructions should begin with the illustration from the Restatement (Third) of the twin fires example so that the complicated concept can be more easily understood by the jury.

After the illustration, the jury should be instructed, "A defendant whose tortious act was fully capable of causing the plaintiff's harm should not escape liability merely because of the happenstance of another sufficient cause, like the second fire, operating at the same time."  The jury should then be instructed that when "there are two or more competing causes, like the twin fires, each of which is sufficient without the other to cause the harm and each of which is in operation at the time the plaintiff's harm occurs, the factual causation requirement is satisfied."

In such cases, where there are multiple, simultaneously operating, sufficient causes, the jury do not have to make a but-for causation finding.

(Footnote and citation omitted; paragraph breaks added.)  The majority also noted, likewise as counseled by the Third Restatement, that a jury may be admonished to disregard trivial causes to redress the rare problem of a false positive in but-for causation.

Justice Lowy
Cross Concurrence and Tort Retort

The concurrence disagreed sharply over the abandonment of substantial causation, and the text of the opinion hints at a heated debate.  "Today the court abandons decades of precedent in an attempt to clarify confusion that does not exist," Justice Lowy opened.  "Abandoning the substantial contributing factor instruction in circumstances where there is more than one legal cause of an injury will, in my view, inure to the detriment of plaintiffs with legitimate causes of action while not clarifying the existing law of causation."

Substantiality has long been the rule for clarity in cases of multiple potential causes, Justice Lowy explained.  It was the approach of the Second Restatement, published in 1965, and before it, the First Restatement, published in 1939, and appeared in Massachusetts case law as early as 1865.  

The test has endured because it works, Justice Lowy reasoned.  The "counterfactual framing" of the but-for test, compelling the jury to imagine a reality in which a defendant's conduct did not occur, paints only half a picture and risks misleading the jury.  In multiple-cause cases, counterfactuals "invite the jury to get caught up in speculative combinations of 'what if' and 'if only,'" Justice Lowy wrote.  "In the sorts of byzantine fact patterns that often arise in medical malpractice, toxic tort, and other tort cases with multiple causes, an instruction on but-for causation provides defendants with tools unavailable to plaintiffs," such as blaming a party not on trial (civil "Plan B").

Pixabay by b0red

The substantiality test "focus[es] jurors' attention" inversely: "it frames causation to have a juror start by considering what actually happened, and whether the defendant's actions played a part in producing the result."  The instruction "focuses the jurors ... directly on what ought to determine legal responsibility: the conduct of the parties."

The concurrence accused the majority of "abandon[ing] what has been our steady and successful practice" of instruction on substantiality.  "Why the sudden about-face?" the concurrence asked rhetorically, then answered: "Only one thing has changed: the Restatements."  In the majority's reasoning, the concurrence observed, "citations to our cases drop off.  Instead, the court replicates an abstract and academic discussion of the problems that the Restatement (Third) of Torts found with the standard" (footnotes omitted).

In footnotes, the concurrence suggested that any confusion results from the Third Restatement's cross-jurisdictional comparison, which omits Massachusetts, and observed, citing Hawaii, that other states have continued to test for substantiality in the decade since the Third Restatement appeared.

The majority responded in its footnotes.  The Third Restatement approach has not been adopted nowhere.  The Iowa Supreme Court adopted the Third Restatement in 2018, the majority noted.

Pixy (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Referencing judicial confusion over multiple causes, the majority noted: "For an example of this confusion, look no further than the concurrence."  The majority disputed the concurrence's conclusion that the Third Restatement approach favors defendants.  And the majority rebutted the concurrence's assertion that the substantiality test has been working: "Beyond the concurrence's own appraisal of the situation, it is not clear what evidence, empirical or otherwise, there is that the use of the standard has been 'steady and successful.' ....  Indeed, when forced to decide what standard to use, the experienced and capable trial judge in this case observed, 'Well ... I know that the law has been somewhat confused in some people's eyes ....'"

The majority took umbrage at the concurrence's suggestion that the court would change Commonwealth law simply to pursue the lead of the Restatement.

The concurrence minimizes the numerous extensive critiques of the substantial factor test....  The concurrence also suggests that we are somehow simply following academic fashion in adopting the Restatement (Third).  This statement ignores that the substantial factor test originated with the Restatement and that the case law the concurrence cites ... has demonstrated great respect for the development of the law as reflected by the Restatement of Torts....  We turn to the Restatement not because it is fashionable to do so, but because the American Law Institute has struggled greatly with the complicated question of causation in negligence cases and is constantly trying to improve the legal standard in this area, including recognizing its own errors in this regard.

Justice Kafker is a member of the ALI.

"The Restatements are owed respect," Justice Lowy retorted.  "Our cases, however, deserve more."

But What About

I'm not a fan of change.  The worst part of all of this for me is that from here on out, I am going to have to teach Massachusetts torts students two versions of attenuated duty and causation, which already is the longest and hardest chapter of the textbook.  Am I going to get more credit-hours to cram it all in?  No.  Am I going to get paid more to prep more?  Definitely no.  And then there are the unanswerable questions.

Asbestos shingles by Mary Lotus (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The instant case arose in medical malpractice, though the majority extended the new causation rule through negligence.  Or most of it.  The court explicitly declined to apply the new rule in cases of toxic torts, at least for now.  Toxic tort cases, such as asbestos claims, are similar to multiple-sufficient-cause cases in that it is difficult, if not impossible, for a jury to trace a plaintiff's illness to one causal agent, one asbestos producer, even while it seems likely that defendants, asbestos producers, collectively are responsible.

In a very few jurisdictions, this problem has led to a controversial approach to liability based strictly on a defendant's share of the product market.  Massachusetts has not gone that far, but has loosened the causation requirement, essentially allowing substantiality to overwhelm scientific causation.  That approach becomes problematic, now, in light of the court's abandonment of substantiality.

Because the but-for test "seem[s] ill-suited" for toxic-tort cases, the majority opined in a footnote:

It is simply not clear whether the concerns we have with the substantial contributing factor test justify eliminating it in these cases.  Given the volume of these cases, their great importance, and the idiosyncrasies that make them unique with regard to factual causation, it would be unwise to apply our holding to these cases as well without first having the benefit of full briefing and argument.  Our hesitance, however, should not be taken as a continuing endorsement of the substantial factor approach in toxic tort cases given the concerns we have expressed today.

Pot, kettle, the concurrence wrote.  "For all its purported confusion, the [substantiality] standard continues to work well in toxic tort cases—except for the fact that the court also invites in a footnote overturning what it otherwise praises."

In fact, the problem is bigger than toxic torts, and bigger than a law professor's woes.  The problem of this decision's scope extends to all of tort law.

Remember, a plaintiff in civil litigation must prove causation to recover.  That's not a rule of only medical malpractice, nor a rule of only negligence.  It's a rule of all torts.  All torts require causation.  The elements of conventional negligence, duty, breach, causation, and injury, are the elements of all torts, stripped of factual context, unexcepted by special circumstances: the fundamental particle components of a compensable civil wrong.  

Photo by Phil Roeder (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thus, again in a footnote, the concurrence hinted at a parade of horribles: "[A]dopting a new approach to cause-in-fact issues in torts will encourage litigants to press for its application in other areas of the law beyond negligence, such as commercial disparagement, defamation, and false representation."  I earlier mentioned an arsonist; basic intentional torts require causation, too.  The problem of causation is so not confined to negligence that the concept of "foreseeability" is used loosely to flesh out legal causation and, simultaneously and alternatively, to locate and describe the outer bounds of the civil liability system in total.

So, tort lawyers, on your marks....

The case is Doull v. Foster, No. SJC-12921 (Feb. 26, 2020).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt and Justice Serge Georges, Jr., were sworn into the court in December 2020 and did not participate in the decision.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Despite lack of statute, anti-SLAPP blocks mining company suit as abuse of process in South Africa

Coffee Bay is a tourist destination on the Eastern Cape.
(photo by Jon Rawlinson CC BY 2.0)
Two weeks ago, a South African court recognized an anti-SLAPP defense in the absence of a statute, as an abuse of process, in a defamation case brought by mining companies against environmentalists.

In the case, mining companies Mineral Commodities Ltd and a subsidiary, and directors, sued environmentalist lawyers and activists for defamation, seeking R14.25m, close to US$1m, or in the alternative, an apology, for defendants' accusations of ecological and economic damage caused by excavation and mining projects at Tormin Mine on the Western Cape and at Xolobeni on the Eastern Cape.

Defense lawyers argued that the suit was a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or "SLAPP" suit, calculated to silence the defendants for their criticism of the plaintiffs, rather than a bona fide claim of defamation.  South Africa has new anti-SLAPP statute.  But the High Court for the Western Cape held, with reference to the freedom of expression in the South African constitution, that the judicial power to abate vexatious litigation and abuse of civil process may be deployed to dismiss a SLAPP suit.

"[T]he interests of justice should not be compromised due to a lacuna or the lack of legislative framework," the court wrote.

The court examined the history of the SLAPP as a legal strategy and traced its origin to anti-environmentalism in Colorado and recognition in the 1988 scholarship of professors Penelope Canan and George Pring.  The court discussed anti-SLAPP legislation in the United States, Canada, and Australia, including the statutes of Georgia, Washington, and New York, and the recent enhancement of the latter.  Anti-SLAPP has been recognized as meritorious in principle by the Supreme Court of Canada, the High Court observed, though anti-SLAPP is enacted by statute in only three provinces.

The court looked also to Europe, and specifically the "McLibel" lawsuit of the 1990s (1997 documentary) and 20-aughts, in which McDonald's Corp. sued environmentalists in England.  Anti-SLAPP has been debated in the European Union, the court explained, but legislation has not been enacted.  Nevertheless, the court opined, the ultimate disposition of the McLibel case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was consistent with the principle of anti-SLAPP.  In the McLibel case, the English courts ruled in favor of McDonald's, finding some assertions in the environmentalist leaflets to be libelous.  Subsequently, the ECtHR, in 2005, ruled that British law (well before the 2013 UK Defamation Act) had not afforded the defendants sufficient protection for the freedom of speech.  

In the McLibel case, the ECtHR stressed the chilling effect on speech of the extraordinary cost burden on individual activist-defendants in defending a civil suit against a large corporation, especially in the shadow of attorney fee-shifting to the winner, which is the norm in civil litigation in the UK and most of the world.  The High Court pointed to a South African precedent that is similar on that point, Biowatch Trust v. Registrar, Genetic Resources, in the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 2009.

I have written before about Biowatch, which was an access-to-information (ATI, freedom of information, or FOI) case.  In that case, environmentalist NGO Biowatch, under South African environmental protection and access-to-information law, sought information about Monsanto (now Bayer) genetically modified organisms introduced into national agriculture.  The result in the case was mixed, and the trial court awarded the defendant government and intervenor Monsanto their substantial legal fees against Biowatch.  Subsequently, the Constitutional Court held that Biowatch should be exempt from a fee award, because such an award against a public-interest litigant would chill the exercise of constitutional rights, which, in South Africa, include the right to a healthy environment.

The exact contours of a common law anti-SLAPP defense will have to be worked out by South African courts if the High Court precedent sticks.  The instant case was not difficult for the court to map to the SLAPP paradigm:  The tort alleged was defamation.  The conduct of the defendants was expression specifically in furtherance of environmental protection.  The mismatch between plaintiffs and defendants in wealth and power was "glaringly obvious."

The plaintiffs' demand also drew the court's skepticism.  Referencing the findings of Canan and Pring in the 1980s, the court observed: "A common feature of SLAPP suits is ... a demand for an apology as an alternative to the exorbitant monetary claim."

I reiterate my dislike of anti-SLAPP laws.  I also acknowledge that anti-SLAPP measures sometimes are warranted.  South Africa in particular, in recent decades, has seen a rise in the weaponization of defamation and related torts, especially by powerful corporations and politicians, including former President Jacob Zuma.  Americans might note a parallel in former President Donald Trump, who used defamation for leverage in business and called for plaintiff-friendly libel reform.  At the same time, defamation defendant President Trump won a nearly $300,000 award against Stormy Daniels thanks to fee-shifting under the California anti-SLAPP law.

The problem with anti-SLAPP legislation in the United States is that it does not weigh factors that the Western Cape High Court took into account, such as the relative power of the plaintiff and the defendant.  Yes, anti-SLAPP laws in the United States and Canada protect environmentalists against developers.  American anti-SLAPP laws also protect fantastically wealthy and sloppy media conglomerates against individuals whose lives are ruined by mistakes and falsities on the internet, which never forgets.  The threat of fee shifting, characteristic of anti-SLAPP legislation and usually foreign to U.S. civil litigation, is especially terrifying in light of enormous U.S. transaction costs, including the high-dollar rents of American corporate defense firms.  Anti-SLAPP laws are the darling of the professional media defense bar, and, lest the journalist's aphorism be conveniently forgotten, we might ought follow the money.

For that reason, the High Court's "abuse of process" approach is intrguing.  The court's articulation of abuse of process, as applied to Mineral Commodities, while not the sole basis of the court's holding, accords with the American common law test.  The American tort may be expressed as "(1) use of judicial process (civil or criminal), (2) ulterior or improper motive, (3) process used not for its designed or intended purposes, and (4) resulting harm."

Typically, in the American context, abuse of process is exceedingly difficult to prove, because courts are generous in accepting the plaintiff's plea of honest intentions to negate the second element.  Mineral Commodities pleaded its genuineness, but the High Court was willing to doubt, sensibly, looking at the parties and the uncontroverted facts.  Maybe a bit less judicial generosity would allow abuse of process to police SLAPP better than the corporate-friendly statutes that 30 U.S. states have embraced, and for which media corporations are now lobbying Congress.

The opinion in the High Court was delivered by Deputy Judge President of the Western Cape High Court Patricia Goliath.  Her surname was not lost on commentators (below), who played on the "David vs. Goliath" ideal of anti-SLAPP.  Curiously, DJP Goliath, who served on the Constitutional Court in 2018, is embroiled presently in turmoil within the High Court.  In 2019, she alleged she had been pressured by President Zuma for favorable assignments of cases in which he was involved.  Possibly in retaliation for not playing ball, she has been, she has alleged further, subject to gross misconduct and verbal abuse, if not worse, by High Court President John Hlophe.  JP Hlophe denies the allegations.

I am indebted, for spying the case, to attorneys for the defendants, Odette Geldenhuys and Dario Milo, of Webber Wentzel, who wrote about the case for the Sunday Times (South Africa) (subscription required) and for the INFORRM blog.

The case is Mineral Sands Resources Ltd v. Reddell, No. 7595/2017, [2021] ZAWCHC 22 (High Ct. Wn. Cape Feb. 9, 2021) (South Africa).

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Big Oil deploys slick strategy to stay ahead of liability

Image by Ucheke CC BY-SA 4.0
On February 12, the UK Supreme Court allowed a claim of environmental catastrophe by 40,000 to 50,000 Nigerian farmers to proceed in English courts against defendant Royal Dutch Shell.  The ruling came just two weeks after farmers prevailed in a significant but more limited case against Shell's Nigerian subsidiary in a Dutch appellate court in The Hague, after 13 years of litigation, and eerily echoes the still unfolding saga of the Chevron-Ecuador battle over Lago Agrio in the Amazon.

I'm compelled to mention the UK case, though it has been covered exhaustively in the media (e.g., N.Y. Times), because I wrote just last week on the controversial scope of "alien tort" liability in U.S. courts.  The case against Royal Dutch Shell ("Shell"), for devastating oil pollution in the Rivers State of the Niger Delta, is a kind of alien tort case in UK and Dutch courts.  In the UK, no specific statutory authorization is required to sue Shell, which is incorporated in the UK and headquartered in The Hague.  Rather, jurisdiction may be invoked upon the plaintiffs' demonstration of a duty in common law tort owed by the defendant company.

UK Supreme Court
(photo by M. Zhu CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The UK ruling is preliminary only; the court held that the plaintiffs demonstrated a "real issue to be tried," the preliminary standard, over the role of Shell in the pollution. The nub of the problem for the plaintiffs is that operations in Nigeria were run by, and not exclusively owned by, a subsidiary corporation of Shell, the foreign-registered Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd. (SPDC).

The corporate shell is designed specifically to insulate the parent company against liability for the conduct of the subsidiary.  To penetrate the shell and reach the parent, the plaintiffs must show that Shell, the parent company, directed the conduct of SPDC, the Nigerian subsidiary, or worked jointly with SPDC.  The court in The Hague allowed jurisdiction upon a comparable control theory in 2015, though ultimately entered a monetary judgment only against SPDC.

The preliminary ruling from the UK Supreme Court does not yet establish direction or joint control, but says that the plaintiffs have made a sufficient showing to serve their lawsuit on Shell.  Rather than digging into the facts, the Supreme Court faulted the courts below, both the majority that had rejected the plaintiffs' claim and the dissent, for looking too closely at the plaintiffs' evidence and effecting a sort of "mini-trial" on the question of Shell control before the case has even been pleaded properly.

Nchanga Copper Mine, Zambia, 2008
(photo by BlueSalo CC BY-SA 3.0)
Environmental damage and human toll in the developing world as a result of resource extraction by western corporations is, sadly, not a new problem, and the UK Supreme Court invoked its experience in a prior case.  In 2015, plaintiffs in Zambia won the right to sue UK-based Vedanta Resources upon allegations that copper smelting had poisoned the water supply with "rivers of acid," containing sulfuric acid and other dangerous toxins.  The cooper operation in Zambia was owned by a Vedanta subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines.  After the Supreme Court allowed suit in England, Vedanta settled with more than 2,500 Zambian claimants.

Vedanta was decided in the spring of 2019, and only then, after the lower courts had rejected the claims against Shell, did the Supreme Court admonish judicial restraint on questions of fact in preliminary proceedings and set out an approach to analyze parent-company duty: "depend[ing] on the extent to which, and the way in which, the parent availed itself of the opportunity to take over, intervene in, control, supervise or advise the management of the relevant operations (including land use) of the subsidiary."

Niger Delta, Nigeria
(ESA photo CC BY-SA 3.0)
In pleadings and on appeal, the plaintiffs asserted a dozen bases in fact to demonstrate Shell control of SPDC, including mandatory compliance standards for subsidiaries on health, security, safety, and environment; business principles; and best practices for assets, facilities, and infrastructure.  According to the plaintiffs, "[Shell's] executive remuneration scheme depended to a significant degree on the sustainable development performance of SPDC."  The plaintiffs alleged that Shell "for many years had detailed knowledge about widespread pollution in the Niger Delta caused by spillages and leakages of oil from infrastructure operated by SPDC, including knowledge of the frequency, location and size of oil spills, including its failure to protect its oil infrastructure against the risk of damage caused by the criminal acts of third parties."

According to the New York Times report on the case, Shell is retreating from investments in the Niger Delta and other sites near human habitation, preferring to drill offshore.  Meanwhile, disputes endure over responsibility to clean up the pollution left behind by extraction and over the efficacy of cleanup efforts.  In this way, the Nigeria case is strikingly similar to others in the world, notably, the long-running dispute between rain-forest communities in Ecuador and oil giant Chevron, successor to Texaco.

In the case against Chevron, an Ecuadorean court in 2011 ordered Chevron to pay $9.5bn to residents of Lago Agrio, a community in the Amazon, for catastrophic oil pollution there.  In 2014, a U.S. federal court ruled that the judgment was procured through fraud, and the plaintiffs' champion U.S. attorney, Steven Donziger, was disbarred in 2020.  The plaintiffs' efforts to collect on the award in courts with jurisdiction over Chevron assets in other countries, such as Canada and Argentina, have failed so far.  Donziger is appealing his disbarment while also facing contempt prosecution in New York.  Celebrity environmentalists continue to hail him as a hero, railroaded by Big Oil.  Meanwhile a district court in The Hague has demanded (subscription), pursuant to arbitration, that Ecuador nullify the judgment, and the matter continues to haunt Ecuador's destabilizing presidential elections.

For the third time, I'm having my comparative law class read Paul M. Barrett's Law of the Jungle, which chronicles the Chevron-Ecuador matter until the book's 2015 publication.  For my money, Barrett's is the most even-handed account out there.  (See also coverage by Michael I. Krauss for Forbes.)  And it's not flattering of Donziger.  But it's also not flattering of Texaco.

The complicated truth of what happened at Lago Agrio is a tragedy in multiple dimensions, generating plenty of blame to go around.  Donziger might have played fast and loose with the law in Ecuador, after being rebuffed in the United States, but he was navigating the outstretched hands of a sorely corrupt judiciary.  The devastation at Lago Agrio is real, and no one, oil firms or government, has ameliorated it.  At the same time, much, if not most, of the pollution can be traced directly to the national oil company of the Ecuadorean government, which at various relevant times bore exclusive or joint responsibility for Lago Agrio.  Even insofar as Texaco controlled the site, government regulators, also riddled with corruption, were utterly derelict in their duty to protect fundamental human rights and enforce industry norms.  To date, the people of Lago Agrio, maybe the only innocent actors in the whole story, have been left to struggle with the horrific health consequences and daily challenges of water and land contaminated by lethal toxins.

In Nigeria, Shell and SPDC also lay blame on the Nigerian government, a partner of SPDC in the extraction operation through the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company.  I have no doubt that the government bears responsibility both for what it did as an owner and what it did not do as a regulator.  I wager that Shell and SPDC, like Texaco and Chevron, are guilty of conscienceless exploitation, but also behaved as rational corporate actors, splitting the difference between the costs of malfeasance and the benefits of non-regulation.  Like in Lago Agrio, the people of the Niger delta are left to endure the consequences of symbiotic opportunism, while the perpetrators point their fingers at each other.

Shell corporate building in The Hague
(photo by Mr. Documents Uploader CC BY-SA 4.0)
Maybe the concept of "alien tort" in the UK is turning the tide at last.  One might expect Shell to follow Vedanta's example and settle, for public relations reasons, if nothing else.  Reuters reported that Shell settled another Niger Delta pollution claim in British courts in 2015 for €70m.  Shell has consistently pledged to clean up Niger Delta pollution, even while disavowing responsibility.  But Shell did not settle the case in the Netherlands, where the company has been able to postpone liability for 13 years to date.  The AP reported that two of four farmer-plaintiffs died since the case there was filed in 2008.  An appeal to the Dutch Supreme Court may yet be filed, and Big Oil might be emboldened by Chevron's experience.

Rivers State, Nigeria
(image by Jaimz height-field CC BY-SA 3.0)
If Shell digs in its heels in the UK, the plaintiffs have an uphill battle ahead.  They will have to produce clearer evidence to persuade the trial court that Shell exercised control at the local level, and then to link Shell oversight to the pollution in proximate causation.  Shell, fairly, will seek to muddle the chain of causation with the intervening actions of venture partners, private and public, and the third-party actions of criminals who sabotaged and burglarized the oil pipeline.  The Dutch appellate court mitigated the plaintiff-farmers' win there by nullifying defense liability in part for the actions of saboteurs, even while recognizing with regard to one claim that SPDC made nefarious access to the pipeline too easy.

If ever there is a settlement or award for plaintiffs that turns ripe for enforcement, it will remain to be determined how effectively money can be converted into remediation in a legal regime whose wavering commitment to the rule of law has been complicit in damage to the Niger Delta environment for the six-decade duration of the nation's independence.  To the plaintiffs' favor, for now, in the UK, their case is informed by their experience in The Hague, where the trial court afforded plaintiffs latitude to probe Shell files for evidence of corporate control.

The case in the UK Supreme Court is Okpabi v. Royal Dutch Shell Plc, [2021] UKSC 3 (Feb. 12, 2021).  Lord Nicholas Hamblen delivered the opinion, with which Lord Hodge, Lady Black, and Lord Briggs agreed.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sovereign immunity shields Texas power overseer from liability for now: not so privatized after all

NASA satellite image of Houston with area blackouts, Feb. 16
The cold-induced electric-power disaster in Texas is raising questions about the accountability of "ERCOT," the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

ERCOT is responsible for about 90% of the Texas electricity market.  During the storm and record cold of last week, Texans experienced rolling outages and some prolonged blackouts.  Deaths and injuries, from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning, are attributed to the cold and blackouts, as well as billions of dollars in property damage.  Governor Greg Abbott has blamed ERCOT for failure to prepare the state's electrical system for a foreseeable winter weather event and promised an investigation.

National Weather Service Tower Cam, Midland, Feb. 20
Naturally, many Texans are wondering about legal liability for ERCOT.  I noticed a tweet from Houston Chronicle business reporter Gwendolyn Wu, who said that ERCOT has "sovereign immunity."  I found that hard to believe.  Wu cited a Chronicle story (subscription), from the bygone innocent age of fall 2019, in which business writer L.M. Sixel said just that.  As it turns out, the problem of ERCOT immunity is sitting, undecided, in the Texas Supreme Court at this very moment.

Legally, ERCOT is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1970 to oversee electric power distribution in Texas.  Because Texas has its own grid that doesn't cross state lines, the power system is not regulated by the federal government.  ERCOT has been at the heart of Texas's love affair with deregulation and privatization, a push that began in earnest in 1999 and found no bounds at the threshold of critical infrastructure.  State legislation in 1999 called on the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) to designate an exclusive "independent system operator" to oversee the Texas power grid, and ERCOT easily got the job that it more or less already had.

Yet ERCOT is neither wholly private nor a success story.  Its near monopoly control of Texas power comes with PUC oversight.  Despite that oversight, ERCOT has posted a remarkable record of abuse and failure.  As Sixel recounted in the Chronicle, executives went to prison in the 20-aughts for a financial fraud aggravated by lack of transparency and exposed by whistleblowers.  About the same time, Texans saw rolling blackouts, even while their deregulated electricity prices shot 30% over the national average.  Then, in 2011, a winter storm with single-digit temperatures caused blackouts across Texas.  It was that event that led federal regulators to recommend that ERCOT and the PUC winterize the system, a recommendation that was never heeded.

Frmr. Gov. Rick Perry tours ERCOT on March 14, 2012.
Apparently, an embarrassing record has not dampened the mood at ERCOT.  The "nonprofit," which is run by a board majority comprising power industry heavyweights, brought in $232m in revenue in 2018, Sixel reported in 2019, and chief executive Bill Magness took home $750,000 in 2017.  Sixel described ERCOT HQ (pictured below) near real-estate-red-hot Austin: "Its sprawling, modern glass and metal building has plush interiors with on-site fitness facilities that include a gym and sport court for volleyball, basketball and pickleball."  In contrast, the PUC "operates from two floors of crammed cubicles in ... a dilapidated structure close to the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.  DeAnn Walker, the commission chairman, earns $189,500 a year."

It was also in 2011 that ERCOT set out toward the immunity question now pending.  After the rolling outages of the 20-aughts, ERCOT wanted to see new sources of power added to the system.  Enter Panda Power, which invested $2.2bn to construct three power plants.  Alas, Panda later alleged in court, ERCOT had deliberately inflated market projections to incentivize investments; the power plants delivered only a fraction of the anticipated returns.  Panda sued ERCOT for $2.7bn in damages on theories including fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

After almost a year of defending the case, ERCOT devised a new theory of sovereign immunity in Texas common law.  ERCOT performs exclusively governmental, not private, functions, it alleged, and works wholly under the control of the PUC.  Despite its statutory role as an "independent system operator," ERCOT insisted that it is not an independent contractor.  Rather, ERCOT styled itself as "a quasi-governmental regulator, performing an essential public service."  Panda argued that ERCOT is not entitled to sovereign immunity because it is "a non-governmental, non-profit corporation that receives no taxpayer dollars and retains discretion," particularly, Panda exhorted, when it furnishes false market data to power providers. 

In April 2018, reversing the district court, the Texas Court of Appeals agreed with ERCOT.  In a functionalist analysis, the intermediate appellate court grounded its decision in the legislative delegation of ultimate fiscal authority over ERCOT in the PUC.  The court wrote (citations omitted):

[A]s to separation-of-powers principles, [the statute] shows the legislature intended that determinations respecting system administration fees and ERCOT's fiscal matters, as well as any potential disciplinary matters or decertification, should be made by the PUC rather than the courts. Further, as the certified [independent service operator] provided for in [the statute], ERCOT is a necessary component of the legislature's electric utility industry regulatory scheme. A substantial judgment in this case could necessitate a potentially disruptive diversion of ERCOT's resources or a decertification of ERCOT not otherwise intended by the PUC.

According to Sixel, that decision rendered ERCOT "the only grid manager in the nation with sovereign immunity."

Pixabay image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
Panda appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard oral argument (MP3, PDF) on September 15, 2020, but has not ruled.

Meanwhile, a curious procedural imbroglio arose in the lower courts to gum up the works.  While Panda was busy lodging its appeal with the Texas Supreme Court, it didn't head off the intermediate appellate court's mandamus order to the district court to dismiss the case, which it did.  Panda then appealed that dismissal on a separate track, and the intermediate appellate court stayed oral argument on that second appeal, waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do with the first appeal.

One month after the Supreme Court heard oral argument, it ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs, which they did in November 2020 (ERCOT, Panda), to answer whether the district court's dismissal mooted the case in the Supreme Court.  Panda insisted that there is a live controversy still before the court.  ERCOT wrote that Panda should have asked for a stay of dismissal in the lower court, and it didn't.  Bad Panda.

House chamber in the Texas Capitol (picryl)
It looks to my outsider eyes like the Supreme Court badly wants not to decide the case.  And that was before the winter storm of 2021.  If the court does kick the case, the intermediate appellate court's ruling for sovereign immunity will stand, and any 2021 complainants will be out of luck.  ERCOT's supplemental brief read anyway with a good deal of confidence about how things would go in the Supreme Court, so maybe it's only a question of which appellate court will bear the people's ire.  While the courts dithered, Panda Energy, a division of Panda Power Funds, folded, and Texas froze.

The best answer to the people's woes lies in their state legislature.  Maybe Texas legislators can be made to understand that privatization is not really privatization when the reins, along with sovereign immunity and a market monopoly, are simply handed over to a nominally independent and hardly nonprofit oligarchy.

Or maybe legislators are on their way to CancĂșn and points warmer.

The case is In re Panda Power Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 18-0792 (now pending), appealing Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC v. Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc., No. 05-17-00872-CV (Tex. Ct. App. 5th Dist. Dallas Apr. 16, 2018), reversing No. CV-16-0401 (Tex. Dist. Ct. 15th Grayson County 2017).  The latter appeal is Electric Reliability Council of Texas v. Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 05-18-00611-CV (oral argument stayed Aug. 20, 2019).

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Covid court backlog, solved: 'Night Court' returns

I've been reading about how courts are struggling to overcome coronavirus backlogs in their caseload.  To me, the answer is obvious.  I saw it on TV.

Anderson, 1987
(Alan Light CC BY 2.0)
Created by writer Reinhold Weege after his Barney Miller wrapped up, Night Court (wiki) ran for 193 episodes over nine seasons on NBC, from 1984 to 1992, a hit by any measure.  Harry Anderson, who passed away in 2018, managed the underbelly of New York criminal process as Judge Harry T. Stone.

Night Court launched many ships.  If already 10 years into his acting career, John Larroquette became a household name as deadpan prosecutor Dan Fielding.  Selma Diamond is unforgettable as gruff bailiff Selma Hacker, even though she appeared only in the first two seasons, passing away in 1985 at age 64.  (Read more about her at the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.)  A parade of guest stars passed through Judge Stone's Manhattan courtroom, including some who went on to greater notoriety, such as Michael Richards, Seinfeld's Kramer, and Brent Spiner, Star Trek's Data.

"Night court" is a real thing, here and there, in the United States, not just in Manhattan.  Like in the TV show, night courts specialize in preliminary criminal proceedings, namely arraignment.  The courts don't run through the night, but after hours, Manhattan's wrapping up around 1 a.m.  Many jurisdictions have found night courts efficient to handle arraignments on drug charges or to settle minor matters, such as outstanding misdemeanor warrants, for people whose life challenges will be compounded if they're forced to get to court during the usual workday hours.  How many times have I complained that the retail counter of the post office should be open at night, when people have time to wait in line?  Though for obvious reasons, night court doesn't work as well for American jury trials. 

Rauch, 2013
(Dominick D CC BY-SA 2.0)
Night Court should be one of those sitcoms that doesn't stand the test of time.  Its humor seems to me pretty specific to the cultural moment of the 1980s.  Nevertheless, Night Court stuck around over the years in cable reruns, and, lately, with retro content pouring into streaming services and being discovered by new audiences, the show has earned its own little niche as a cult classic.  The real Manhattan night court has been a real thing since 1907, according to the New York Post, but in recent years, in part thanks to a listing in the Lonely Planet, the Manhattan night court has become a tourist attraction, appealing to visitors from around the world.

Whether real night court might help unjam our covid court backlog, I don't really know.  But TV Night Court might be getting a new lease on life.  According to a Deadline exclusive in December 2020, Melissa Rauch, The Big Bang Theory's Bernadette Rostenkowski, was a fan of the original in her New Jersey childhood and pitched a reboot to NBC.  Rauch is now set to executive produce the new show, which will feature "unapologetic optimist" Judge Abby Stone, daughter of the late Harry.  John Larroquette is lined up to return as an older and wiser Dan Fielding.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

CFP: Journal explores digital journalism, media literacy


My friend and colleague Dr. Manish Verma will be special editor of an upcoming edition of the Journal of Content, Community and Communication at Amity University at Madhya Pradesh, India.  Papers are invited from academics and industry experts on these themes:

  • Digital media as public sphere
  • Citizen and participatory journalism through digital Media
  • Digital media economy
  • Digital media and political communication
  • Future of journalism in the digital age
  • Social media as source of news
  • Digital media laws and censorship
  • Digital media literacy
  • Journalistic ethics in digital media
  • Data journalism
  • Mobile and multimedia journalism
  • Artificial intelligence in journalism 

Author guidelines and the official CFP are at the journal website.  Manuscripts, preferred length of 3,000 to 5,000 words, are sought no later than April 30, 2021, and will be peer reviewed.

Dr. Manish Verma
Dr. Verma recently published his own work in the journal, co-authored with Dr. Nithin Kalorth and Dr. Malvika Sagar: Information and User: Social Media Literacy in Digital Societies, 12 J. Content, Cmty. & Commc'n 263 (2020), doi:10.31620/JCCC.12.20/24.  Here is the abstract.

The information flow in digital societies has been discussed and analysed for more than a decade with close watch on social media networks. The shift from traditional forms of communication to social media enables users to gratify their daily needs of information digitally. The current paper builds on narrative analysis of selected social media active users and their digital social engagement to understand how a user and a network of users engage with information. To understand the role of social media literacy, the current paper interviews the users and correlates the findings with contemporary literature on social media. The results show that social media literacy becomes a pillar of information system, but it works in micro-level of societies at crossroads of online and offline spaces.

The authors survey digital media users to analyze the efficacy of efforts by social media platforms to enhance digital literacy to combat misinformation.  The paper concludes that the efforts are less than efficacious because they derive from a holistic vision of society and politics rather than an understanding of the literacy deficiencies of individual users.