This petroleum refinery in Anacortes is run by Shell, one of the defendants in the suit brought by King County. Photo by Walter Siegmund/Wikipedia Commons

This petroleum refinery in Anacortes is run by Shell, one of the defendants in the suit brought by King County. Photo by Walter Siegmund/Wikipedia Commons

Can King County win its lawsuit against Big Oil?

Legal experts think past lawsuits against the tobacco industry increase the odds of a favorable outcome.

King County is swinging big with its latest lawsuit. On May 9, the county filed a suit against five major oil companies—Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips—alleging that the corporations knew about the impacts of fossil fuels on climate change, but downplayed them to the public. And some legal experts think that the county has a fighting chance.

Three allegations make up the pillars of the suit. The first is that fossil fuel combustion is the primary driver of climate change. Next, the county claims that these five companies knew about the impacts of fossil fuels on global warming. The third element is that, despite this knowledge, the companies committed to their fossil fuel-based business models and employed intentionally misleading public campaigns that downplayed the environmental dangers of fossil fuels.

“[The] defendants, notably, did not simply produce fossil fuels. They engaged in large scale, sophisticated advertising and communications campaigns to promote pervasive fossil fuel usage and to portray fossil fuels as environmentally responsible and essential to human wellbeing—even as they knew that their fossil fuels would contribute, and subsequently were contributing, to dangerous global warming,” the suit reads. “Defendants’ promotion of fossil fuels has also entailed denying mainstream climate science or downplaying the risks of global warming.”

In 2015, reports emerged that ExxonMobil knew about the role of fossil fuel combustion in climate change going back decades despite their public expressions of doubt about climate science.

The suit argues that the oil companies, through their actions, have created a severe “public nuisance,” a legal offense in which the public, rather than an individual, suffers injury, loss, or damage.

King County joins numerous other jurisdictions around the country that have pursued similar lawsuits against the oil industry. In January, New York City filed its own suit against the same five companies. Last summer, two California cities and one county initiated legal action against a whopping 37 fossil fuel producers. San Francisco, Oakland, and Boulder, Colo. have also filed suits.

If the county wins the suit (filed in King County Superior Court), the damages extracted from the companies would go towards helping King County mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Environmental lawyers that Sound Publishing spoke with argue that the suit has good prospects due to legal precedent set not only by the big tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, but also a more recent ruling in a California case brought against paint companies for the health hazards of lead in their paint and other common law (i.e. law constructed from court rulings) going back centuries.

“Nuisance was the original environmental law when there was an activity harming the public good or the public welfare,” said Andrea Rodgers, a senior attorney with Eugene-based environmental firm Our Children’s Trust. She added that, prior to the creation of statutory environmental laws like the 1970 Clean Air Act, smaller scale environmental pollution could be dealt with in the courts through public nuisance cases. “It’s exactly like what you saw with the tobacco litigation.”

In the suit, King County argues that the impacts of climate change on King County—for example, the costs associated with sea level rise, flood control, and salmon habitat restoration—qualify as a public nuisance. “[The] defendants’ actions are causing recurring, intermittent, continuous, and/or ongoing harm to the County, including flooding and erosion affecting County property,” the lawsuit reads, going on to say that the county’s property will be “damaged by the defendants’ nuisance” and that they have and will spend “substantial dollars to mitigate the damage caused by the nuisance.”

Corrie Yackulic, a Seattle trial lawyer who is assisting some of the California cities in their lawsuits against oil companies, has a similar take. “There are old nuisance and trespass cases in Washington going back decades and decades where a company has released a pollutant and caused a public harm,” she said. “These are ancient legal doctrines.”

Yackulic also likens the current cases against big oil to the tobacco suits of the ‘90s. “These companies, through their conduct, have gravely endangered human health and the environment for profit, while, internally, being well aware,” she said. “It’s the same narrative as the cigarette [companies].”

The California lead paint case is “very analogous” to King County’s lawsuit according to Kassie Siegel, director of the California-based Climate Law Institute with the Center for Biological Diversity. “These local governments should win these cases. These are solid lawsuits.”

In a statement released on May 9, the Manufactuers’ Accountability Project—an energy industry advocacy organization—condemnned the lawsuit as “frivolous.” “Lawsuits targeting manufacturers do nothing to address climate change, but will do plenty to line the pockets of plaintiffs’ attorneys—and in this case, the very same attorneys behind countless other public nuisance lawsuits throughout the country. As history has demonstrated, these lawsuits stand little chance in the courtroom,” the statement read.

King County has hired Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro—a local law firm that was involved in the ‘90s tobacco lawsuits—to pursue the litigation. They have been hired on a contingency fee basis, meaning that the firm covers litigation expenses and will only receive compensation if they win. Hugh Spitzer, a University of Washington law professor, described the firm as “aggressive.”

“The attorneys bringing these cases are some of the best working in this field and they have the facts,” said Rodgers. “I think they will go far.”

But the oil industry also has significant resources at its disposal to fight off lawsuits. As Siegel put it, “It will be an epic battle.”

jkelety@seattleweekly.com


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@kentreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.kentreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in News

t
Kent Police seek man who reportedly tried to kidnap girl from apartment

Man allegedly reached into bathroom window to grab girl in attempted kidnapping

t
Kent Police arrest man, 18, in fatal shooting of 13-year-old boy

Judge finds probable cause to hold the Kent man for murder, attempted murder and robbery

The Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle that handles juvenile detention. COURTESY PHOTO, King County
High-profile juvenile crimes continue to rock Kent this summer

Six incidents in five weeks include fatal shooting, vehicular homicide, vehicular assault

King County Correctional Facility in Seattle. COURTESY PHOTO, King County
Kent man charged with attempted kidnapping of 6-year-old girl

40-year-old man allegedly try to take girl from apartment complex parking lot

Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. FILE PHOTO
Kent man receives 8-year sentence in 2021 fatal shooting

Pleaded guilty to lesser charge of manslaughter in shooting at apartment complex over parking dispute

Courtesy Photo, King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office
Judge finds probable cause to hold Kent man for kidnapping girl

Man, 40, reportedly grabbed 6-year-old girl in East Hill apartment complex parking lot

t
King County residential property values rise 12.4% in SE Kent

King County Assessor John Wilson begins to release 2024 numbers

t
Three 11-year-old girls in Kent help stop kidnapping of 6-year-old girl

40-year-old man reportedly grabbed girl in apartment complex parking lot on East Hill

t
Kent Police seek male teen driver in fatal hit-and-run on East Hill | Update

Teen reportedly driving stolen vehicle and fleeing police during Saturday, July 13 incident; victim identified

t
13-year-old boy fatally shot in Kent on East Hill near Turnkey Park | Update

Boy found shot near apartment complex Tuesday night, July 16 identified by medical examiner

t
Kent School Board votes 3-1 to send levy to voters in November

Capital projects and technology levy reduced from $192 million to $97 million after previous failures