The legal implications of climate change are still in their infancy. Although there have been several previous attempts to hold the fossil fuel industry legally responsible for the impacts of climate change, none have yet been successful. It has yet to be established whether climate change is legally actionable. If it is actionable, it is still to be determined who bears the legal liability for the effects. Nevertheless, a group of crab fisherman in California have recently filed a lawsuit seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry responsible for the impact that climate change has had on their bottom line.
Prior to the complaint filed by the crab farmers, several states had filed suit against the fossil fuel producers. The states had filed legal action alleging that the pollution from the fossil fuel industry had created a nuisance. As a result of this, states were left to shoulder the effects of global warming and incur the costs necessary after adverse events caused by the warming. Over a dozen lawsuits have been filed. Recently, however, a federal judge dismissed some of the lawsuits, stating that Congress is a more appropriate body to handle this matter than a federal court.
On the heels of that dismissal, a group of crab fishermen filed a suit against the fossil fuel industry. This suit represents the latest attempt to hold the energy industry legally responsible for global warming. Specifically, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations filed suit against 30 fossil fuel companies in San Francisco County Superior Court.
The fishermen have alleged that the environmental impact of global warming has had a negative impact on their ability to earn a living. According to the fishermen, climate change has caused toxic algae to become prevalent in the waters, thereby reducing the fishermen’s harvest. These toxic chemicals have made their way into crab meat, making them unsuitable for human consumption. As a result, crab season has been shortened by several months, reducing the fishermen’s revenues.
The lawsuits pursue several different courses of action against the fossil fuel industry. Like the states’ lawsuit, the fishermen’s suit focuses first on climate change as a nuisance. In other words, the effects of the fossil fuel deprive the fishermen of their ability to use the seas for their commercial purposes. Pollution can be considered a nuisance in certain instances.
Where this lawsuit is a novelty is in its attempt to bring this action as a product liability suit. The action claims that there is a design defect in the fossil fuel companies’ product that causes the impact on the sea. The fishermen claim that the fossil fuel industry had a duty to warn the fishermen of the problem, but failed to do so.
Finally, the lawsuit seeks to argue that climate change is a result of the negligence of the oil company. The fishermen allege that the fossil fuel industry owed a duty to the general population to not manufacture products that are harmful to the environment. By selling their energy products, fossil fuel companies have breached their duty not to cause harm to the fishermen. In addition, their failure to warn anyone of the effects of their products is a further breach of the duty that they owe to the general public.
These types of lawsuits are still relatively new legal theories. While previous suits have not yet had any success in recovery, it is still unclear how these complaints will fare in the courts. What is certain is that the fishermen are at the vanguard of what will likely be a wave of litigation filed against the fossil fuel industry over climate change.