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Fossil Fuel Industry Granted Defendant Status in Youths’ Landmark Climate Lawsuit
Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the federal District Court in Oregon granted defendant status Wednesday to three trade associations, representing nearly all of the world's largest fossil fuel companies. The three associations had moved to intervene in the constitutional climate change lawsuit brought by 21 young people from around the country.
The newly named trade association defendants are the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM)—representing ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Koch Industries, and virtually all other U.S. refiners and petrochemical manufacturers, American Petroleum Institute (API)—representing 625 oil and natural gas companies, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).
“We believe Judge Coffin was wise to allow the fossil fuel industry into our constitutional case," Philip Gregory of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy who serves as an attorney for the young plaintiffs said. “The fossil fuel industry would not want to be in court unless it understood the significance of our case. This litigation is a momentous threat to fossil fuel companies. They are determined to join the federal government to defeat the constitutional claims asserted by these youth plaintiffs. The fossil fuel industry and the federal government lining up against 21 young citizens. That shows you what is at stake here."
The fossil fuel powerhouses call the youth's case “extraordinary" and “a direct, substantial threat to [their] businesses." During Wednesday's hearing, the industry argued that a decision in favor of plaintiffs on their legal claims will require a significant restructuring of the fossil fuel business model, such as potentially invalidating thousands of leases for fossil fuel extraction and development.
“A finding of liability will necessarily lead to a remedy that will necessarily impact" the trade association members, said Quin Sorenson of Sidley Austin, counsel for AFPM, API and NAM. Sorenson went on to argue that if the federal defendants are found liable for constitutional or public trust violations, that finding would in essence be a finding that the U.S. had acted unlawfully in permitting the fossil fuel activities of the associations' member companies.
Judge Coffin agreed that a decision in the plaintiffs' favor would impact the interests of the fossil fuel intervenors. As a result, Judge Coffin wants to have the key interested parties in the courtroom should the case proceed to trial. Counsel for the trade associations confirmed the groups represent nearly every fossil fuel related company in America. In response to the court's questioning, the three trade associations stated they would all speak with “one unified voice" during the litigation.
“We are prepared to take on the world's largest fossil fuel polluters, including Exxon and Koch Industries, alongside the federal defendants," Julia Olson, executive director for Our Children's Trust and counsel in the litigation, said.
“This case asks the court to order what the industry fears most: a national plan using the best science to leave a nation of clean air and a healthy climate to our kids. These trade groups will now have to face the science-based evidence in a courtroom, not in the halls of Congress where their lobbying dollars hold the most clout. We are confident these young people and our team of internationally-recognized scientists will present evidence supporting a court-ordered national climate plan."
In their lawsuit, the young plaintiffs assert the federal government violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by allowing and facilitating the exploitation of fossil fuels. The youth have asked the court to order the federal government to prepare and implement a science-based national climate recovery plan.
The judge granted the intervenors the opportunity to supplement the government's Motion to Dismiss, gave the youth plaintiffs ample time to respond and has set oral argument on all Motions to Dismiss for March 9 at 10 a.m. PT in Eugene, Oregon.
Watch this video to learn more about the plaintiffs:
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"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.