Exxon must face Massachusetts climate change lawsuit, court rules

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BOSTON, May 24 (Reuters) - Massachusetts' high court on Tuesday unanimously rejected Exxon Mobil Corp's (XOM.N) bid to dismiss a lawsuit by the state's attorney general accusing the oil company of misleading consumers and investors about climate change and the dangers of using fossil fuels.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said Attorney General Maura Healey could pursue what Exxon called a politically-motivated case that it claimed violated a state law protecting defendants from lawsuits designed to silence them.

Justice Scott Kafker, writing for the 7-0 court, said the statute protecting against strategic lawsuits against public participation only applied to private lawsuits, not government enforcement actions.

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Applying the so-called anti-SLAPP law to such cases would create "significant roadblocks" for the attorney general as the statute requires lawsuits to be largely put on hold until a court decides whether to dismiss them, Kafker said.

Healey, a Democrat running for governor, called the decision "a resounding victory in our work to stop Exxon from lying to investors and consumers in our state."

Irving, Texas-based Exxon said it was evaluating its next steps.

Healey sued Exxon in 2019 following a three-year probe, alleging it misled consumers about the impact fossil fuel products had on climate change and deceived investors about the climate-driven risks facing its business.

Her lawsuit has progressed further than other pending cases by state and local governments seeking to hold energy companies responsible for climate change. Exxon in 2019 following a trial defeated a case by New York alleging it defrauded investors.

Exxon denies wrongdoing and argues Healey brought the case to punish it for its political stances on climate change. read more

The ruling marked the second time Healey and Exxon had gone before the state's top court. In 2018, the court rejected Exxon's bid to avoid complying with a so-called civil investigative demand, akin to a subpoena, during her probe.

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Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston Editing by Bill Berkrot

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.