Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dismissal of California v. General Motors

Efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions through nuisance lawsuits suffered a blow last night when the Northern District of California granted defendants' motion to dismiss in California v. General Motors. In this action, California seeks damages against several major automakers on the grounds of state and federal public nuisance law.
The District Court dismissed on the ground that the case raises non-justiciable political questions, with a particular focus on the third factor of Baker v. Carr: Can the court decide the case without making “an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion”? In particular the opinion stated:
By themselves, the CAA and EPCA do not directly address the issue of global warming and carbon emission standards. However, when read in conjunction with the prevalence of international and national debate, and the resulting policy actions and inactions, the Court finds that injecting itself into the global warming thicket at this juncture would require an initial policy determination of the type reserved for political branches.
Moreover, the District Court found that the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA (on which we've posted here, here, and here) only reinforces its conclusion:
Because the States have ‘surrendered’ to the federal government their right to engage in certain forms of regulations and therefore may have standing in certain circumstances to challenge those regulations, and because new automobile carbon dioxide emissions are such a regulation expressly left to the federal government, a resolution would thrust this Court beyond the bounds of justiciability.
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with this dismissal or whether, this opinion gets overridden on appeal, it raises important questions about the regulation of anthropogenic climate change in several senses:
1st, what role should courts play in the multiscalar, interbranch regulation of this problem? Will these justiciability concerns become more or less salient as the crisis gets worse and the domestic regulatory regime develops further?
2d, how much of a difference should it make whether litigants seek damages or injunctive relief? The opinion indicated that “by seeking to impose damages for Defendant automakers’ lawful worldwide sale of automobiles, Plaintiff’s nuisance claims sufficiently implicated the political branches’ powers over interstate commerce and foreign policy, thereby raising compelling concerns that warn against the exercise of subject matter jurisdiction on this record.” If a suit focused on major emitters within a particular state, do damages become more or less viable under this reasoning? How should courts navigate the interconnections that globalization brings?
3d, and perhaps most importantly, how should climate change be regulated? Is it a problem that can be addressed through a primary set of international and national regulations or do states and localities need to be included more directly? What options should a heavily impacted state like California have to address this problem if international and federal level efforts lag behind what it is willing to do (an issue raised by other recent and pending litigation)? This dismissal does not resolve these questions, but rather serves as another moment in a complex, ongoing conversation.

1 comment:

Rebecca Bratspies said...

interestingly, the court seems to view the relationship between damages and injunctive relief very differently than did the Boomer and/or Ducktown Sulphur courts. In those cases, the courts refused to issue injunctions, but did award damages.

i wonder if this case signals a shift in nuisance law.