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Why Honolulu's Big Oil lawsuit "is now the most important climate case in the United States"
The Hawai‘i state Supreme Court has ruled that a potentially historic lawsuit against oil companies can move forward to trial.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead.
A climate lawsuit filed by the City and County of Honolulu that could make oil and gas majors pay billions of dollars in damages for deceiving the public about their products’ role in climate change is now positioned to be the first of its kind to go to trial, following a ruling from the Hawai‘i Supreme Court. Legal experts say that Honolulu’s case could set a precedent for similar climate lawsuits filed by dozens of U.S. communities and make history as the first time fossil fuel companies would have to face the evidence of a decades-long industry campaign of climate deception in court.
The unanimous ruling, written by Hawai‘i Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald, upheld a lower court ruling that rejected two key arguments the oil companies made in an effort to dismiss the case. The court’s decision means that the case can now enter into full discovery — the phase during which plaintiffs can collect more evidence to prove their case — and a state court can finally set a date for the case to go to trial.
“This is now the most important climate case in the United States,” said former Hawai‘i Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson, who retired earlier this year after a decade on the state’s highest court. “Now the Hawai‘i Supreme Court has allowed a jury of twelve Hawai’i citizens to decide whether lies by the oil companies created large scale billion dollar damage to our county and city of Honolulu.”
The city and county’s lawsuit charges ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP and other oil giants with orchestrating “sophisticated disinformation campaigns to cast doubt on the science, causes, and effects of global warming,” thus delaying climate action for decades. The complaint argues that the companies violated state common laws like public nuisance, failure to warn, and trespass — and that their conduct left Honolulu facing floods, storms, heat waves, wildfires, rising seas, and other climate disasters that have cost billions of dollars in destruction and repairs. Now, plaintiffs contend, Big Oil should help foot the bill for the damage.
But the oil and gas industry has bitterly disputed the case, first attempting to move it out of state court, and, when that failed, filing motions to have it dismissed entirely. Along the way, a pro-fossil fuel industry group even launched a PR blitz in right wing media against Recktenwald, the state's Republican-appointed Chief Justice, accusing him of bias for giving a presentation through the nonprofit Environmental Law Institute that sought "to educate fellow judges about the basic science they need to adjudicate the climate litigation over which they preside." (Oil company lawyers, including one involved in Honolulu’s case, are also involved in ELI. One law professor said the attack on Recktenwald was “grasping at straws.”)
In August, just after nearly a hundred people were killed in the devastating wildfires on Maui, which has filed a nearly identical lawsuit that is also moving through state courts, Hawai‘i’s Supreme Court heard Big Oil’s arguments to dismiss Honolulu’s case. The companies argued that state law could not address the global issue of climate change — and that federal law preempted Honolulu’s claims under the Clean Air Act.
Ted Boutrous, a lawyer for Chevron, told the court that Honolulu was “seeking to impose damages based on the actions of millions and billions of people around the world. They’re going to put all the consequences of that on these companies.”
This week’s decision thoroughly debunked those arguments. “We agree with [Honolulu city and county] Plaintiffs,” wrote Chief Justice Recktenwald. “This suit does not seek to regulate emissions and does not seek damages for interstate emissions… Because this is a traditional tort case alleging [oil company] Defendants misled consumers and should have warned them about the dangers of using their products, Defendants’ arguments fail.”
Big Oil’s “big problem”
The ruling makes clear that “our courts are united in their view” of the case, said Denise Antolini, a retired University of Hawai‘i law professor who has submitted legal briefs in support of the lawsuit. “The cases use traditional tort law to tackle a very large problem, which is the deceptive climate marketing and campaigns of Big Oil.”
A ruling in the case could have significant implications for other climate cases across the country, said Richard Wallsgrove, a Professor of Law and Environmental Law Program Co-Director at the University of Hawai‘i.
“Big Oil’s argument is, ‘the problem is so big that we no longer have responsibility for that problem,’” Wallsgrove said. “But there have to be ramifications. These municipal climate cases’ core legal theory is, [oil companies] created a big problem and they lied about it. The Hawai‘i Supreme Court’s opinion is saying that if somebody violates the law, courts are the place where that should get adjudicated.”
The case has been in a limited form of discovery, but it can now move into a comprehensive phase where the city and county can request documents and depose key representatives from the oil companies. That next stage “will bring to light the lies and the campaign of Big Oil’s climate denial, and that’s what they’re deathly afraid of — of that story seeing the light of day,” Antolini said.
The path ahead
Of the dozens of climate accountability cases working their way through U.S. courts, Honolulu’s is now one of two — along with a Massachusetts consumer fraud case against ExxonMobil — that is positioned to receive a 2024 trial date.
Honolulu still needs to prevail against one more Big Oil motion to dismiss its case. Chevron has invoked an anti-SLAPP law from California, where the company is headquartered, that’s intended to protect individuals and whistleblowers from lawsuits meant to silence their free speech. Honolulu’s lawsuit, Chevron contends, violates that law and Chevron’s First Amendment rights because its climate denial was actually protected free speech.
That motion is moving through a separate appeals process — but if you ask Antolini, it has a “snowball’s chance in hell” of preventing the case from moving forward. “Anti-SLAPP protections are really important, but they don’t protect Big Oil,” she said.
“A groundbreaking decision of hope”
Wilson said Honolulu’s case is now “set up to be a major achievement for the jurisdictions around the state that are victims of fossil fuel burning that’s being done as a result of misrepresentations made by the oil companies … There will be a price tag put on the knowing poisoning of the atmosphere.”
“The procedure of this case shows how young people, future generations, and the citizens of the city and county of Honolulu can have hope that the oil companies that increase greenhouse gas emissions and are more profitable than they’ve ever been will have to go to trial,” he said. “This is a groundbreaking decision of hope.”
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