Sue Over Climate Change? Comer v. Murphy Oil

You know the old saying: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. And then sue a company with a lot of money—the inclemency must be their fault.

Consider the case of Ned Comer et al. (plaintiffs) versus Murphy Oil USA et al. (defendants), now making its way through the United States Court of Appeal, Fifth Circuit (PDF).

See, old Ned was a sittin’ down on the Mississippi bayou, mindin’ his own bidness, when along came hurricane Katrina. Whap! Knocked old Ned right on his keister. “Ouch!” he said, rubbing the only part of his body that had ever been any use to him.

Boy, was Ned unhappy. And so were his neighbors. They got together and reasoned thusly: since no hurricane had ever hit us before, no hurricane could have hit us without that something nefarious occurred.

Now, nefarious doesn’t just happen on its own; it needs agents, minions, evil lackeys. Who might they be? How about that global warming everybody was chattering about? Wasn’t that supposed to create killer ‘canes? Yes, sir, it was.

But what made global warming? Why, carbon dioxide. And who made that nasty gas? Of course! Oil companies!

The neighbors cheered.

“Those oil companies sure are a nuisance,” said one. “They knew their product would cause old Ned grief.

“They were negligent,” said another.

“They’s trespassin’ on my property!” shouted a third.

“I think you mean they engaged in an ‘unjust enrichment’ of your land,” said number four, who knew a lot of big words because he had actually started high school (in Arkansas).

“It’s a civil conspiracy, that’s what it is,” said five.

Old Ned smiled on his gabbling crowd and announced, “They said oil was good for us. They lied! We’ll get ’em for fraudulent misrepresentation.”

Once more, a lusty cheer rolled across the swamp.

Thus encouraged, the gang lit up their torches and headed down to Sorry Hollow, where Junior Beauford’s boy Dewey was fighting a gator over ownership of a dead possum. Dewey had had a case of beer fall on his head when he was just a tyke, and was never quite right after that.

“Dewey! Say, Dewey! C’mere, boy!” shouted Ned. When Dewey clambered out of the muck, Ned said, “Dewey, we need you to sue Murphy Oil et al. for us.”

Later, a stack of papers landed on the local judge’s desk. The judge saw that it was the work of Dewey, and he figured Dewey was either drunk or going through one of his phases, so he tossed the papers in the ashcan and forgot all about them.

But the judge’s secretary was keen on recycling, so she retrieved the papers and returned them to Dewey, who, poor soul, reasoned the judge wanted him to appeal.

Now, them appellate judges—Davis, Stewart, and Dennis—are some good old boys. Here’s what they said about Dewey’s brief:

The plaintiffs allege that defendants’ operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries in the United States caused the emission of greenhouse gasses [sic] that contributed to global warming, viz., the increase in global surface air and water temperatures, that in turn caused a rise in sea levels and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina, which combined to destroy the plaintiffs’ private property, as well as public property useful to them.

The Murphy clan, previously silent, cried foul. They said, “Didn’t old Ned and his neighbors, and even you judges drive down here propelled by some of our oil? Nobody forced you. If you hated oil so much, you could have rode your horse, or even walked. Start thinking straight.”

These words caused Stewart and Dennis to squirm, but not Davis, who still smarted from a vivid memory of having his mouth washed out with Murphy’s Oil Soap. He figured that some mystery chemical in that soap was what was responsible for his occasional hallucinations and dementia.

Stewart and Davis knew Murphy was right, but they also had to get along with the ornery Davis, so they figured they would compromise. They tossed out the civil conspiracy and fraudulent misrepresentation claims. They also got rid of that unjust enrichment bit, mostly because nobody knew what it meant.

But they said to old Ned, “Go ahead and sue for nuisance, trespass, and negligence. Those other things, though are non-justiciable.” Dewey explained to old Ned that “non-justiciable” was a word they had to use to make the whole thing legal.

And legal it was. Even as I write this, lawyers everywhere are licking their chops, delighted to discover a new area to sue about. Tobacco suits, after all, had grown pretty stale.

But who will win: Old Ned or Murphy? Stick around!


HT WSJ. Insanity not unique to Mississippi.

Update Link fixed. Thanks DAV.


  1. Ken

    This reads a lot like that sci-fi book by the former Star Trek actor is quoted to read.

    It’s that bad.

    And that good!

  2. Ari

    I hope for his sake he’s never actually burned any of the fossil fuels that those companies produced. Otherwise, he’ll have to sue himself!

    Also, “Tobacco suits, after all, had grown pretty stale.” Intentional use of double entendre? I sure hope so!

  3. David

    If the oil industry can be sued, then farmers and their cows have to be sued, then those driving cars, Coca cola for the bubbles in their drinks,… Even bloggers are not immune (“performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle” or about 7g of CO2 per search.) The stock value of this site has just gone down! Sell everything!

  4. DAV


    The PDF link appears to just go back to the post itself.

    If it’s going through Appeals, I take it that means it’s had it’s day in court. In OCT, the 5th Appeals ruled: “For the reasons discussed herein, we conclude that the plaintiffs have standing to assert their public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims, and that none of these claims present nonjusticiable political questions; but we conclude that their unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy claims must be dismissed for prudential standing reasons. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment, dismiss the plaintiffs’ suit in part, and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.”

    Hard to see how public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims can be made if actually the issue is CO2 causing hurricanes — deep pockets not withstanding.

  5. Steve Hempell


    Sorry this is off topic, but maybe not completely. You are always going on about how people, if they are interested in statistics, should learn R. I have been, but its been a bit of a nightmare. Especially since I have no programming experience. Tonight I ran across this website:

    I parted with $19 US, and have learned more in 5 minutes than I have in months of slogging through the manuals myself. Any novices here thinking of learning R give it a peek.

  6. HankHenry

    Interesting, locally, we have a hog factory being sued by neighbors on the nuisance issue. It’s a common law cause of action which means it has deep deep roots in the law. (After all neighbors have been pissing off neighbors since forever – sometimes in the spirit of sport.) It could be interesting to see how the courts grapple with the pile of evidence surrounding the global warming controversy. In the hog farm suit plaintiffs were called on to pay for expensive monitoring of SO2 levels. I suppose this will make even Keeling’s curve subject to the close close kind of scrutiny that only legal adversaries can bring. I think I read somewhere that Keeling tossed out his CO2 readings when the wind came from the direction of pineapple fields.

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