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Tales From the Activist Courtroom: American Electric Power v. Connecticut

Last week, legal activists and profit-seeking trial attorneys notched a victory against manufacturers when a panel of California judges ruled that paint manufacturers could be held liable for damages caused by a product they had not produced in decades. That case is part of a larger trend of plaintiffs’ lawyers chasing profits through public nuisance suits against manufacturers.

Continuing the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project’s (MAP) series on politically-motivated lawsuits endangering manufacturers in America, we look this week at American Electric Power v. Connecticut.

In American Electric Power v. Connecticut, states sued manufacturers, trying to blame them for climate change based on the claim of public nuisance. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices didn’t even come close to buying this theory. In an 8–0 decision, they rejected the bizarre argument and held that corporations cannot be sued for greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) under federal common law.

The case began in 2004 when a state-led coalition sued a group of energy manufacturers. Eight states, the City of New York and three land trusts separately sued six power companies claiming that the emissions were a public nuisance.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, holding that they were political questions that were not appropriate for courts to decide and citing the “political question doctrine” under which courts may not adjudicate issues that have been assigned to the political branches of government.  This doctrine establishes the idea that courts should not hear cases that are essentially political—and not legal—in nature, and indeed, the District Court held that the plaintiffs had tried to disguise a political disagreement as a legal complaint. After the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit disagreed and sided with the plaintiffs, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the Supreme Court’s opinion on June 20, 2011. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled against the plaintiffs, finding that the Clean Air Act made their claims irrelevant. Because the Supreme Court previously ruled the EPA had the authority to regulate GHGs, thus the courts are not the appropriate venue to press this particular kind of complaint.

American Electric Power v. Connecticut was a landmark case because it reinforced our judicial system’s position that these types of cases are political in nature. While GHGs are top of mind for all manufacturers in America, Congress and the EPA have the authority to address emissions, and we have done our part to reduce them by 10 percent since 2005, including improving sustainability and efficiency. Congress and the EPA have the authority to address emissions. Unfortunately, when states or activist groups choose to sue manufacturers anyway, valuable resources are wasted on litigation that could otherwise go to improving operations or supporting jobs and workers.