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.
"It's a long shot for the insurance companies, but it's not
completely implausible, and if you have enough cases like this
going forward it might build some helpful precedent," said
Robert Verchick, who served on the Obama administration's
Climate Change Adaptation Task Force.
He said insurance companies are vocal about the rising costs
of global warming and want to push cities to invest in
prevention as a way to avoid future lawsuits.
Chicago says it is already spending heavily on
infrastructure to adapt to changing weather and has a
comprehensive Climate Action Plan.
But the city's foresight may have made it a target, said
Verchick, since Farmers cites the document as evidence officials
were aware of the risks.
The Chicago law firm Sneckenberg Thompson & Brody, which
represents Farmers, directed questions to the insurance company.
Farmers spokesman Trent Frager would not specify how much the
company paid in insurance claims, and none of the suits
specified a damage amount.
Flooding struck Illinois in April 2013, and the federal
government paid more than 64,000 Illinois households and
individuals more than $218 million in aid and low-interest loans
following the storms, said the state's Emergency Management
Fear of lawsuits can be a barrier to local government
action, said Alice Kaswan from the University of San Francisco
School of Law. Insurers or citizens may sue them for allowing
building in areas prone to flooding or wildfires. Or property
owners could argue their land was devalued if a locality bars
construction in high-risk areas as a precautionary measure.
Lawsuits trying to pin liability for climate change on
greenhouse-gas emitters have largely failed, since it is
difficult to prove an individual polluter is responsible for
global phenomena such as rising sea levels.
Ultimately, costs will need to be distributed more broadly
if cities and individuals want to avoid higher insurance
premiums or losing coverage altogether, Kaswan said.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Howard Goller and