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Climate Lawsuit Update: CA Judge Questions Trial Attorneys’ Use of Public Nuisance Law

The Manufacturers’ Accountability Project is closely monitoring the state of play in California and other states in which misguided lawsuits have been filed.  Last week, Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California heard a motion to dismiss the lawsuits filed against manufacturers by San Francisco and Oakland. We’ve highlighted below some of his comments from the hearing that poke holes in the plaintiffs’ faulty legal arguments:

E&E News and Courthouse News Service reported on Judge Alsup’s comments on whether San Francisco and Oakland should be able to seek billions of dollars in damages for events that have not yet occurred:

  • “You’re asking for billions of dollars for something that hasn’t happened yet in Oakland, for example, that may never happen to the same extent that you’re predicting in the complaint,” Alsup said. “Why don’t we just wait and see if it happens? … If the city of Oakland has to pay millions of dollars for a sea wall, then OK, but it hasn’t even occurred yet, and it may not occur until you and I are long gone.”[1]
  • “When asked to cite one cost the cities have already paid for climate change, [attorney Steve] Berman pointed to outside consultants hired to help the cities prepare for rising sea levels. ‘That doesn’t add up to billions of dollars,’ Alsup said.” [2]

E&E News and Courthouse News Service also reported that Judge Alsup highlighted how the United States has benefitted from the production of fossil fuels, an activity encouraged by the federal government:

  • “‘We’ve been using fossil fuels for the entire Industrial Revolution; we won the Second World War with fossil fuels,’ Alsup said. ‘If we didn’t have fossil fuels, we would’ve lost that war and every other war and airplanes couldn’t fly. … Trains couldn’t run and we would be back in the Stone Age. We’ve derived a huge benefit from fossil fuels, right?’” [3]
  • “He also asked how the cities can hold oil companies liable for conduct that was expressly endorsed by Congress and the president. Didn’t Congress tell the people in Texas and everywhere else, ‘Get out there and drill for oil,’” Alsup asked. “Every president I can remember says, ‘We’re going to achieve energy independence.’” [4]

In the end, Judge Alsup did not rule on the motion to dismiss, but rather ordered a 60-day discovery period on the question of whether the court has jurisdiction in the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits. The MAP will continue to monitor this and other legal developments in the misguided lawsuits against manufacturers.


  • [1] As quoted in “Judge lets cities probe oil giants for documents,” Debra Kahn, E&E News, May 25, 2018

    [2] As quoted in “Judge Skeptical of Cities’ Climate Change Suits,” Nicholas Iovino, Courthouse News Service, May 24, 2018

    [3] As quoted in “Judge Skeptical of Cities’ Climate Change Suits,” Nicholas Iovino, Courthouse News Service, May 24, 2018

  • [4] As quoted in “Judge lets cities probe oil giants for documents,” Debra Kahn, E&E News, May 25, 2018