Calif. attorney general sues automakers over global warming

By | October 9, 2006

Automakers should be held liable for contributions to global warming, according to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Thus, he recently filed a lawsuit against leading U.S. and Japanese auto manufacturers, alleging their vehicle emissions contribute significantly to global warming, harm resources, deteriorate infrastructure and threaten the environmental health of California while costing the state millions of dollars.

Lockyer estimated current damages at tens of millions of dollars and said it could grow.

The AG’s Office declared vehicle emissions the single most rapidly growing source of carbon emissions, contributing to global warming, yet said the federal government and automakers refuse to act. “It’s time to hold these companies responsible for their contribution to this crisis,” Lockyer said.

Filed on behalf of the People of the State of California in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the complaint names as defendants: Chrysler Motors Corp., General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor North America Inc., Honda North America and Nissan North America.

As the first of its kind, the suit seeks to hold manufacturers liable for the damages caused by greenhouse gases emitted by their products and comes less than a month after California lawmakers adopted the nation’s first global warming law mandating a cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Under federal and state common law, [automakers have] created a nuisance by producing millions of vehicles that collectively emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide,” said the AG’s Office.

The suit asks the court to hold the defendants liable for damages, including future harm caused by ongoing contribution to the public nuisance of global warming.

Lockyer alleged automakers produce vehicles emitting a combined 289 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in the United States each year, nearly accounting for 20 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions in the nation and more than 30 percent of total emissions in California. He suggested the defendants rank among the world’s largest contributors to global warming and adverse environmental impacts on California.

“Global warming has already injured California’s environment, economy and overall health and well-being of its citizens,” Lockyer said.

The lawsuit does not seek a specific claim for damages. It said the state spends millions of dollars monitoring reduced snow pack, coastal and beach erosion, increased ozone pollution, sea water intrusion into drinking supplies, impacts on wildlife (including endangered species and fish), wildfire risks and long-term on-going monitoring of future impacts.

California is vulnerable to global warming, according to a report recently submitted by the Climate Action Team to Governor Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature, stating the consequences of climate change in California will be severe.

“We are seeing the harmful impacts of global warming, and if we continue with business as usual, we can expect to see an increase in amount and severity,” Lockyer said. “As a coastal state, an agricultural state and a state that relies on its Sierra snow pack, California has an enormous stake in acting now to combat global warming.”

Critics have accused Lockyer of political posturing in light of upcoming elections. Lockyer is running for California state treasurer.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, speaking on behalf of some of the carmakers, noted a similar suit brought against power companies was dismissed by a federal court in New York.

Lawyer, writer, actor and economist Ben Stein, wrote in an article, “Suddenly, California Hates the Car,” that appeared on nytimes.com on Oct. 1, that Lockyer’s suit is a tort lawsuit, implying a wrong or wrongdoing.

For example, running a red light is “wrong.” If a spinach packaging company negligently contaminated someone with E. coli, that would be considered a “wrongdoing.”

Stein indicated a”wrong” must exist in a tort case, but automakers will say they have done nothing wrong. Car manufacturers make a legal product in accordance with regulations on its building and use, the article noted.

On the other hand, cigarettes, whose manufacture is legal, have been the subject of many lawsuits that questioned whether tobacco companies appropriately divulged knowledge about the addictive and harmful effects of nicotine, and whether they marketed to children.

Stein indicated that the automaker lawsuit does not allege deception as the cigarette lawsuits did. He said any possible liability arising from harmful effects of a car’s emissions would likely be protected under a consumer’s “assumed risk.”

A spokeswoman for Lockyer, Teresa Schilling, said the suit is in fact about wrongdoing. “Basically the idea is corporations can’t operate in a manner that interferes with public health and safety,” she said. The heart of the lawsuit is to quantify the damages in California, she said.

In reaction to Stein’s article, Schilling said, “Mr. Stein is voicing the auto industry’s script, a distracting argument that car companies can’t be faulted because they’re meeting federal emissions standards.”

However, the legal principle of public nuisance, which the lawsuit alleges, is neither new nor radical, Schilling added. “Carmakers contribute over 30 percent of greenhouse gas pollutants emitted in California. Damage is occurring now, and it is time for them to be held accountable for their share.”

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