U.S. insurer class action may signal wave of climate-change suits

Fri May 16, 2014 8:17pm GMT

By Mica Rosenberg

(Reuters) - A major insurance company is accusing dozens of localities in Illinois of failing to prepare for severe rains and flooding in lawsuits that are the first in what could be a wave of litigation over who should be liable for the possible costs of climate change.

Farmers Insurance filed nine class actions last month against nearly 200 communities in the Chicago area. It is arguing that local governments should have known rising global temperatures would lead to heavier rains and did not do enough to fortify their sewers and stormwater drains.

The legal debate may center on whether an uptick in natural disasters is foreseeable or an "act of God." The cases raise the question of how city governments should manage their budgets before costly emergencies occur.

"We will see more and more cases," said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School in New York. "No one is expected to plan for the 500-year storm, but if horrible events are happening with increasing frequency, that may shift the duties."

Gerrard and other environmental law experts say the suits are the first of their kind.

Lawyers for the localities will argue government immunity protects them from prosecution, said Daniel Jasica of the State's Attorney's Office in Lake County, which is named in the Illinois state court suit.

"If these types of suits are successful - where is the money going to come from to pay the lawsuits? The taxpayers," he said. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, also named in the suits, declined to comment.

Several class actions accusing the Army Corps of Engineers of failing to secure levees breached during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were mostly dismissed last year on immunity grounds.   Continued...

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