Climate kids' lawsuits pursue new tack

Steam rises from the cooling towers of the coal power plant of RWE, one of Europe's biggest electricity and gas companies in Niederaussem, Germany, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
  • Lawyers litigating for youthful plaintiffs say they are asking for declaratory relief in latest case
  • Youths sue Virginia, saying its policy of permitting fossil-fuel infrastructure violates state's constitution

(Reuters) - Lawyers from Our Children's Trust (OCT), who are currently litigating about half-a-dozen lawsuits featuring youthful plaintiffs over climate change, the latest of which was filed on Wednesday in Virginia, are pursuing a new tack in their legal campaign to apply the doctrine of public trust to hold governments liable for climate change damages.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in Richmond state court builds on the group's recent success in Montana state court, where a similar case will go to trial in February of next year, a milestone for these public-trust-doctrine cases.

Nathan Bellinger, a lawyer with OCT, said that the group's Virginia complaint is the first to leave out a detailed injunctive request, such as a governmental remedial plan, and rather focus on declaratory relief.

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Bellinger said the decision follows recognition that "there's been some reluctance from the courts to ... order the government to do something in particular."

The Montana case was key in reaching that conclusion, Bellinger said.

In that case, where a dozen young people are suing Montana over an energy policy they claim drives climate change, a judge last year allowed the lawsuit to proceed only after tossing the plaintiffs' request for injunctive relief, but letting stand a bid for a potential declaration that the policy is unconstitutional.

OCT is also litigating a federal lawsuit by youth plaintiffs who claim the United States' energy policy harms them by contributing to climate change. In that case, a federal judge in Oregon is considering whether plaintiffs can file an amended complaint.

In Wednesday's complaint, 13 young Virginians, ages 10 to 19, say that their state violates their rights to life and liberty under Virginia's Constitution with a policy of approving permits for in-state fossil-fuel infrastructure that drives up greenhouse gas emissions, despite knowing their harm.

The office of the governor of Virginia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Layla H. et al. v. Commonwealth of Virginia, Circuit Court for the City of Richmond, No. N/A.

For Layla H. et al.: Isak Howell of Isak Howell, Attorney at Law; Nathan Bellinger and Kimberly Willis of Our Children's Trust

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Thomson Reuters

New York-based correspondent covering environmental, climate and energy litigation.