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Honolulu, Maui lawsuits against oil companies will proceed in state court

Nina Wu

A federal district court judge has determined that state courts — not a federal court — still have jurisdiction over two Hawaii lawsuits filed against fossil fuel companies.

Both Honolulu and Maui counties are among dozens of jurisdictions that have filed suit against a long list of fossil fuel companies, seeking damages for the mounting costs of dealing with climate change.

In the latest back-and-forth in the legal battle, U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson on Feb. 12 ordered lawsuits from both the City and County of Honolulu and County of Maui be remanded — or sent back — to the Hawaii state courts where they were originally filed as requested by the counties.

Honolulu filed suit against the companies last March in the First Circuit Court of Hawaii, saying it was about holding oil corporations accountable for failing to disclose important information they knew for decades about their damaging impacts and that they, not taxpayers, should pay for them.

“This remand is an important step in our case and we are pleased Judge Watson sent our case back to the state court where it was filed,” said Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi in a statement. “We look forward to continuing the fight for the community throughout the entire process.”

Maui County filed suit against the companies in October in the Second Circuit Court of Hawaii, saying that they were part of a decades-long campaign of deception and that the rising costs and impacts of climate have been felt there in the form of chronic drought, sustained heat waves, and worsening coastal erosion.

Both suits were filed against a long list of oil corporations with historical business ties in Hawaii, including Sunoco LP, Aloha Petroleum Ltd., BHP, Mobil Corp., ExxonMobil Oil Corp., Shell Oil Co. and Chevron Corp.

Chevron, a defendant, sought to move the cases to federal court saying their activities took place under leases on the outer continental shelf, which is federal property, and under the direction of federal officers.

Judge Watson said in his order that the principal problem with the defendants’ arguments is that they “misconstrue” plaintiffs’ claims.

The plaintiffs — Honolulu and Maui counties — are pursuing claims on the “alleged concealment of the dangers of fossil fuels, rather than the acts of extracting, processing, and delivering those fuels.” Viewed in this light, he said, there is no relation to activities on the outer continental shelf under the direction of federal officers or on federal enclaves.

Maui County, which said it filed its case in state court because all of the claims stem from state law and properly belong in state courts, considered the judge’s decision a win.

“We expect this to be the first of many victories for Maui County in this case,” said Maui Mayor Michael Victorino in a news release. “Big Oil companies will have to answer for what they did. We hope that our case will shine a light on the causes of climate change and how Big Oil concealed that information just to make an extra buck. They must pay for the damages they are causing to our islands.”

According to Sher Edling LLP of San Francisco, counsel for the suits by Maui and Honolulu counties, Judge Watson is the sixth federal judge to find no grounds for federal jurisdiction of similar litigation brought in state courts.

A total of 24 states and local governments have filed similar lawsuits over the past few years.

Judges for suits filed by the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and cities of Baltimore, Md.; San Mateo, Marin, Santa Cruz, Imperial Beach, Richmond, Calif.; and Boulder and San Miguel counties in Colorado have also chosen to remand similar cases back to state courts.

With Judge Watson’s ruling, the Hawaii cases can now move forward in state courts. There are no specific amounts in damages listed in the suits, and proceedings could take years.

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