SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Tuesday gave a new lease on life to lawsuits in which eight California cities and counties are seeking to have oil companies pay millions or billions of dollars for sea walls and other protections from rising seas.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the public nuisance lawsuits filed by Oakland, San Francisco, San Mateo County and other entities belong in the state's superior courts, where they were originally filed, rather than federal court as sought by the oil companies.
The lawsuits claim the oil companies created a public nuisance by producing and promoting oil and natural gas fuels while knowing that they lead to global warming and sea level rise.
Two lawsuits filed by Oakland and San Francisco against Chevron Corp. and four other companies were moved to federal court in San Francisco by U.S. District Judge William Alsup and then dismissed by him in 2018.
The appeals court rejected Alsup's reasoning for the transfer. It said those two cases should first go back to his court to determine whether there is an alternate reason for federal jurisdiction, and, if there is no alternate ground, the lawsuits should return to the Alameda and San Francisco county superior courts for further proceedings.
Four other lawsuits filed by San Mateo County, Marin County, the city of Imperial Beach and Santa Cruz County together with the cities of Santa Cruz and Richmond against more than 30 energy companies will now return to their original superior courts in the state court system.
The appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria's 2018 refusal to move those cases to federal court.
Oakland and San Francisco city attorneys Barbara Parker and Dennis Herrera said, "These lawsuits were filed to protect our residents, workers, and businesses from the harms of climate change knowingly imposed on our communities by the fossil fuel companies.
"The court thoroughly rejected the fossil fuel companies' argument that our cases somehow magically belong in federal court despite the fact that they were filed in state court raising only state law claims. We look forward to further proceedings with Judge Alsup and then getting these cases back to state court where they belong," the city attorneys said.
Lawyers for the other six cities and counties said in a joint comment, "We are grateful that the Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Chhabria's order to remand our cases back to the state courts where they were originally filed.
"We look forward to proceeding in state court, where the Californians we represent will have a chance to present the facts about what the defendants knew about the climate change-related dangers their fossil fuel products pose, how the defendants both deceived and didn't warn us about those dangers, and why those companies should be held accountable for the costs of surviving climate change," they said.
Chevron spokesman Sean Comey asserted the lawsuits "seek to penalize the production of affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy, which for decades has been authorized and encouraged by law and government policy makers."
"Chevron believes the cases belong in federal court. They present substantial issues of national law and policy which makes them inappropriate for state law," Comey said.
But in "whichever forum the cases are ultimately determined, these factually and legally unsupported claims do nothing to sensibly address the significant national economic, legal and policy issues presented by climate change," Comey added.
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