In Puerto Rico, a small-town lawyer from Illinois has sued major fossil fuel companies on behalf of sixteen municipalities for the damages that Hurricane Maria and other natural disasters have caused over the land. The lawyer is Mellisa “Missy” Sims, and she has previously worked in the environmental sector of law, suing oil companies over contaminated land.
In November of 2022, Mellisa Sims filed a lawsuit against Exxon, Mobil, Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell, and BP, claiming that the companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a crime against patterns of racketeering activity, which is organized crime that consistently collects profit. Her stance is that these companies “downplayed the effects of global warming” and their contribution to it. The consequences of being charged with RICO could mean large financial ramifications as well as twenty years in prison, and legal experts say that for this case, the damages could result in losses of hundreds of billions of dollars.
“Besides RICO, other causes of action include consumer fraud, antitrust violations, fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, failure to warn, and products liability,” according to the ABA Journal.
Large scientific studies note that man-made global warming, such as those the fossil fuel industry participates in, made the 2017 hurricanes more dangerous, causing Hurricane Maria to exacerbate its damaging effects and result in more than $100 billion worth of destruction for Puerto Rico. Sims’ case lies largely on the fact that these big companies devalued the effects of climate change. According to an article from the New York Times, large fossil fuel companies have understood the consequences of their emissions to the planet but instead chose to conceal that information from the public. Rather than acknowledging their actions, they lobbied and doubted the science of climate change to the public. Since 1965, these companies have produced 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Hurricane Maria was made more powerful and dropped more rainfall because of man-made climate change, studies have shown,” The New York Times states. “Hurricanes are becoming more destructive as the atmosphere warms and water temperatures rise because of global warming, scientists say. And the waters around Puerto Rico have warmed substantially in recent years, leading to the rapid intensification that made the storms so powerful.”
The future for this lawsuit looks good, at least regarding Mellisa Sims’ case. There is large documentation of conspiracy that Mellisa hopes to prove, as ExxonMobil, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute helped form a group to block climate action named the Global Climate Coalition in 1989. Furthermore, the American Petroleum Institute created a group called the “Global Climate Science Communications Team” that discredited the science behind cigarette smoke causing cancer. According to Grist, “‘They’ve made it easy to prove,” Melissa Sims, an attorney at Milbery, the Tennessee-based law firm representing Puerto Rican cities, told Grist earlier this year, ‘because, unlike all the other racketeering cases that have been on file, none of them included a written battle plan with a division of labor on how they were going to accomplish their deception.’” In an article by The American Prospect, the plaintiffs have a surplus of evidence in the form of a 200-page complaint, including the formation of the Global Climate Coalition, which was put together to oppose climate change. These large, organized forums are a key part of enacting the violation of RICO, and this complaint alleges that big oil companies “engaged in a long-term course of conduct to misrepresent, omit, and conceal the dangers of Defendants’ fossil fuel-based consumer products.” However, The American Prospect says there is still a battle to face. The municipalities must provide specific reasoning for their claim and how the misrepresentation specifically affected them. They also need to show that had they known the truth, they could have taken preventative measures against climate change, and Patric Parenteau, a law professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School, says that the last requirement proves to be difficult to support, as climate change cannot be prevented by a single municipality.