While I have long predicted (refer here) the possibility of litigation against directors and officers of public companies concerning global climate change-related disclosures, to date the lawsuits have not materialized. Which is not to say that there have not been relevant developments – to the contrary, there have been many, as discussed below. There just haven’t been any disclosure lawsuits.
However, recent case law developments in the Second and Fifth Circuits, though relating to an entirely different area of the law, suggest that there may be a new environment for climate change-related lawsuits, as a result of which climate change disclosure lawsuits have moved one step closer.
The Recent Decisions
As summarized in an October 29, 2009 memorandum entitled “Judicial Climate for ‘Global Warming’ Claims Getting Worse?” (here) by Theodore Howard and Jeremiah Galus of the Wiley Rein law firm, the two recent case law developments are the Second Circuit’s September 21, 2009 decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co. (here) and the Fifth Circuit’s October 16, 2009 decision in Comer v. Murphy Oil USA (here).
In each of these cases, a variety of claimants asserted claims based on nuisance and other tort theories against a variety of utilities and energy related companies, claiming that the defendants’ carbon emissions had caused (or increased) the plaintiffs’ claimed harm. The claimants in the Comer case are victims of Hurricane Katrina, who basically claim the defendants’ activities exacerbated the hurricane damage. In each case, the district court held the plaintiffs’ claims could not surmount initial justiciability and standing hurdles.
However, in both cases, the appellate courts determined that the plaintiffs did have standing to assert their claims and held that their claims do not present non-justiciable political questions.
As the law firm memo notes, these rulings “may have removed significant hurdles from the paths of plaintiffs seeking to hold corporate emitters of greenhouse gases liable for harms allegedly caused by global warming.” But though the decisions “may signal a shift in the way courts view tort-based global warming claims,” it is “still too early to project the decisions’ significance.”
Among other considerations the memo notes as suggesting that the decisions’ significance ultimately may be reduced is the fact that at least one district court case already has expressly declined to follow the Second Circuit’s analysis in the American Electric Power case. The memo also notes that the “plaintiffs undoubtedly still face the potentially insurmountable task of proving how and to what extent a particular corporation’s contribution to global warming proximately caused a particular plaintiffs’ injuries.”
For these reasons, the memo notes, it “remains to be seen” whether the cases “pose a serious risk of liability exposure for corporate defendants,” but the corporations – and their insurers – “should be paying close attention to further developments in these cases.”
On at least one level – and arguably on all levels – these developments have little to do with the possibility of claims against corporate directors and officers for climate change-related disclosures. These lawsuits raise claims only on tort and nuisance theories. Moreover, it does, as the law firm memo notes “remain to be seen” whether these cases will result in any liability even on those claims.
Nevertheless, I believe these cases represent potentially significant developments with respect to the possibility of climate change disclosure litigation. First, as the memo notes, these cases “may signal a shift in the way in which the federal courts view tort-related global warming claims.” The extent to which judicial perspectives have been changed and to which hurdles have been removed may not be limited just to the context of tort-related cases.
The context within which all climate change related cases are considered may have changed, particularly to the extent these courts “newfound willingness” to consider these cases is, as the memo suggests, “derived from a perceived failure on the part of the legislative and executive branches to address the issue.” If prospective plaintiffs believe that climate change-related claims may be more likely to receive a receptive hearing, they may be encouraged to bring further claims, whether based on tort or based on other theories.
Some readers may regard my generalization of these tort case developments to the world of D&O claims as analytically unwarranted, and they may be right. However, I think this recent case decisions are most properly viewed as the just the latest in a series of developments that have brought the climate change debate ever closer to the courts.
The first development in this chain was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA (about which refer here). The chain continued with New York AG Andrew Cuomo’s climate change disclosure subpoenas to several utilities, which resulted in several of the utilities agreeing to certain disclosure principles (refer here). There have been several other extensions of the chain, including the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ promulgation of climate change disclosure principles for insurance companies, as well as the EPA’s April 2009 endangerment finding (about which refer here). Similarly, there have been a variety of Congressional and other initiatives toward mandating climate change related disclosures (refer here).
These appellate decisions are just the latest event in this continuing chain of developments. In addition, there are other reasons why I think we can expect to see disclosure related litigation. Among other things, the pattern for the kind of disclosure related case that may yet arise is already established. As I noted in a recent post (here), there is already a pattern for disclosure-related cases based on alleged misrepresentations or omissions related to environmental liabilities and contingent litigation exposures.
Moreover, there is an extensive network of activists who are politically motivated to bring these kinds of claims. Andrew Cuomo was attempting to appeal directly to this network when he filed the disclosure-related subpoenas against the utilities, and there are countless others whose political agenda would be served by similar initiative, including litigation. As the chain of developments outlined above continues to lengthen, these motivated actors, who already have demonstrated their willingness to pursue litigation to advance their goals, may well target concerned players concerning their climate change-related disclosure.
I know from prior communications with readers that there is some significant skepticism about the prospect for climate change-related disclosure litigation any time soon. These skeptics could well be right, since there that kind of litigation is unlikely to arise in the absence of a significant share price decline from a company’s disclosure of some climate change or greenhouse gas emission related issue. But I still think the possibility of these kinds of claims arising is merely a question of when, not if. (Some people I am sure assume I am afflicted with some unbreakable curse that compels me to make these predictions at least once every quarter.)
A Couple of Securities Class Action Settlement Notes: The long-running securities class action lawsuit involving Adams Golf and certain of its directors and officers has finally settled. The case, which was went all the way through discovery and which suffered from delays owing to judicial vacancies, was first filed in June 1999 and related to the company's July 1998 IPO. More details about the case can be found here.
According to the company's November 3, 2009 press release (here), the settlement provides for a payment to the plaintiff class of $16.5 million, of which Adams Golf itself has agreed to contribute $5 million.
Readers of this blog may be interested in the statement in the press release that Adams was "forced" to contribute the $5 million "because one of its former insurers refused to contribute to teh settlement based on the alleged late notice of the claim." The press release states that Adams has commenced coverage litigation against the former insurer and against its former insurance broker. The settlement requires Adams to pay the class action plaintiffs the first $1.25 million of any recovery, net of fees and expenses, that Adams recovers in the ongoing litigation with the former insurer and former broker. Further details about the settlement and the coverage litigation can be found on Adams Golf's November 3, 2009 filing on Form 8-K (here).
In a separate development, in a November 3, 2009 press release (here), Quest Software announced that it has settled the options backdating related securities class action lawsuit that had been filed against the company and certain of its directors and officers. The case settled for $29.4 million. Background regarding the case can be found here. I have added the Quest Software settlement to my running tally of options backdating related settlements, which can be found here.
Special thanks to Adam Savett of the Securities Litigation Watch blog (here) for providing the information about the Quest settlement.