On Tuesday, May 3rd, CIEL President Carroll Muffett testified before the California Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Senate Bill 1161. SB 1161 (also known as the “California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016”) is at once a common-sense measure and a potential landmark in efforts to ensure climate accountability before the courts.
A growing body of evidence demonstrates that major fossil fuel companies knew about the potential for carbon-based fuels to contribute to climate change decades earlier than widely recognized. There is also substantial evidence that, faced with the opportunity of warning the public, some companies chose instead to actively fund misinformation campaigns targeted at consumers and the public at large.
California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) allows state and district attorneys to bring civil claims against defendants who have misled the public about the nature of their products. This may apply to actions taken to confuse or obfuscate climate science in the mind of the public.
Unfair Competition Law claims, however, must be filed within four years of “accrual,” a legal standard based on when the act was done and when it was discovered. With evidence of what companies knew – and when – emerging rapidly, and the likelihood that still more evidence will come to light in the months ahead, the question of when a potential claim could have been “discovered” creates real uncertainty for public officials, who must make a choice between fully investigating and assessing potential claims or filing actions quickly lest an uncertain statute of limitations produce procedural obstacles.
SB 1161 removes this uncertainty by reviving expired claims for a period of four years, ensuring that any cases pursued by state attorneys at least make it into the courtroom. Importantly, SB 1161 does not create any new liability, change the standard of proof, affect any other right or defense a defendant may have, or otherwise speak to the substantive claims that may be brought. It merely ensures the case can be tried on the merits.
CIEL was honored to testify in support of this precedent-setting legislation. SB 1161 is an important piece of the climate litigation puzzle. Given the scope of the challenges faced by climate change, state attorneys have better things to do than agonize over procedural obstacles to litigation. If fossil fuel interests misled consumers or investors about the risks of their products, they have earned a day in court just like any other defendant. If, as evidence increasingly suggests, one or more companies engaged in climate deception on a massive scale over an extended period, barring claims against those companies for simple passage of time would reward the deception, and result in a travesty of justice. The public deserves to know the truth. SB 1161 is one more valuable step in finding it.
Originally posted May 10, 2016