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State’s climate suit on hold, awaits jurisdictional rulings

A ruling on joint motions to dismiss filed by 19 multinational oil and gas company defendants in a climate change suit brought against them by the state will have to await decisions in cases that present similar questions of “stream of commerce” personal jurisdiction pending before the U.S. and state supreme courts, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge has decided.

At issue is whether the “arise out of or relate to” requirement for specific jurisdiction is met when none of a nonresident defendant’s contacts with the forum state caused the plaintiff’s injuries, a question on which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in October.

The state of Rhode Island’s lawsuit alleges that the defendant companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Speedway and Hess, have known for almost 50 years that the unrestricted production of fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases that, in turn, warm the planet, change its climate, and cause sea levels to rise.

According to the suit, because of its extensive coastline, low-lying areas, and considerable coastal development, Rhode Island is particularly vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise. It contends that the defendant companies’ fossil fuel products, along with their concealment of the known dangers of those products, has “substantially and measurably contributed to the state’s climate change-related injuries” by jeopardizing roads and bridges, railroads, dams, ports, water supplies, wastewater management infrastructure, and residential and commercial properties.

The state seeks recovery based on several legal theories, such as public nuisance, strict liability for design defect, and violations of the state’s environmental laws.

The defendants moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction under Rhode Island Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(2), contending that the plaintiff is unable to demonstrate that its alleged injuries “arise out of or relate to” the defendants’ contacts in Rhode Island consistent with the due process requirement of the 14th Amendment.

In delaying consideration of the joint motion, Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel wrote that “courts have frequently held that the direct or indirect shipment of goods into [a] forum by a nonresident defendant with knowledge of their destination is sufficient contact upon which to base jurisdiction where the plaintiff was injured as the result of such shipment, even when the shipment constituted the defendant’s only contact with the forum.”

But Vogel noted the “relatedness” question raised by the facts in the current action is akin to other lawsuits in which the exercise of personal jurisdiction is being challenged by defendants who designed, manufactured and sold their allegedly defective products outside the forum state. That scenario, she explained, is “squarely before the United States Supreme Court” in the consolidated cases of Bandemer v. Ford Motor Company and Ford Motor Company v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court and also pending before the state Supreme Court in Martins v. Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC.

“Like our Supreme Court, this court will have to address whether the ‘arise out of or relate to’ requirement for specific jurisdiction is met when none of the nonresident defendant’s contacts with the forum state caused the plaintiff’s injuries,” Vogel wrote. “Accordingly, the rulings from those courts necessarily would impact this court’s determination of defendants’ joint motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.”

Considering the complicated questions of liability, causation and damages raised by the lawsuit, Vogel also declined to entertain the defendants’ separate Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

“The court finds that this motion involves many complex issues that render it imprudent to rule on the Rule 12(b)(6) motion until deciding the jurisdictional questions,” she continued. “[I]t is most appropriate to postpone ruling on all motions presently before the court until the United States Supreme Court and our Supreme Court issue their opinions in the Ford and Martins cases.”

The 27-page decision is State v. Chevron Corp., et al.

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