Civil Rights, Climate Change, Energy, Environmental Justice, Indigenous Rights, Natural Resources

Say ‘Aloha’ to Lawsuits Against Fossil Fuel Companies

Carleigh Stiehm (she/her)

Fordham Environmental Law Review Staffer
Class of 2023

A Hawaiian state court has paved the way for other county and local governments to levee claims against fossil fuel companies. Honolulu and the Board of Water supply are heading to trial against Chevron, Sunoco, and ExxonMobil, among others, for downplaying the damage their products have on global warming. In the end of February 2022, the judge denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim.

This decision was distinguished from similar cases brought across the nation that have never gotten far enough to see their day in court. One notable blow in 2021 was the Second Circuit’s decision in City of New York v. Chevron Corp, which upheld the dismissal of similar claims.

However, the success in Hawaii may prove to be the catalyst that other states and organizations need to bring similar claims. The lawsuit alleges that major oil and gas companies have been working for decades to intentionally mislead consumers and lawmakers about the impact of the fossil fuel industry on the climate. 

As part of the alleged damages, the lawsuit claims that communities across Hawaii have experienced an increase in droughts, heat waves, and coastal erosion, as well as rising coastlines. Moreover, the suit argues that it is the duty of the companies that caused these issues to pay for the damage, rather than pushing those costs onto the consumer. 

The Hawaii case is further unique because it is alleging state charges, rather than federal. Therefore, the damages themselves also center on the local communities in the Hawaiian Islands. It also uses tort law as a basis for the claims for relief, alleging that the defendants breached a duty that they owed to disclose the damaging effects that they were aware of. 

Just getting the go-ahead from the court to move forward means that there is still a long way to go before plaintiffs can count this as a win. But it is an important first step, and could potentially open the doors to additional suits nationwide. 

There will still be the challenge of proving that the gas and oil companies were aware of the damages they were causing when they engaged in disinformation campaigns. Additionally, there must be a causal link to the damage itself and the acts of the defendants. 

Still, the decision holds major significance. Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters noted: “This is a big and important win. Not only in the sense of legal justice, but also for our local residents. We are facing incredible costs to move critical infrastructure away from our coasts and out of flood zones, and the oil companies that deceived the public for decades should be the ones helping pick up the tab for those costs—not our taxpayers.”

With so much still unknown about this case, it will certainly be one that the environmental and the legal worlds are keeping their eyes on. Until then, the Hawaiian word for good luck is ‘Pomaika’I,’ and when you have a case against big oil and gas companies, plaintiffs need all of the Pomaika’I that they can get.