In an ambitious move, an attempt will be made to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for “decades of deception” in a lawsuit being brought by communities in Puerto Rico that were devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“Puerto Rico is one of the most affected places by climate change in the world. It is so precariously positioned – they get hit on all fronts with hurricanes, storm surge, heat, coral bleaching – it’s the perfect place for this climate litigation,” said Melissa Sims, senior counsel for the plaintiffs’ law firm Milberg.
The 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act was originally intended to combat criminal enterprises like the mafia, but has since been used in civil courts to litigate harms caused by opioids, vehicle emissions and even e-cigarettes as organised crime cases.
Now, the first-ever climate change Rico case alleges that international oil and coal companies, their trade associations, and a network of paid thinktanks, scientists and other operatives conspired to deceive the public – specifically residents of Puerto Rico – about the direct link between their greenhouse gas-emitting products and climate change.
This fossil fuel enterprise, which remains operational according to the lawsuit, resulted in multitude of damages caused by climate disasters that were foreseen – but hidden – by the defendants in order to maximise profits.
The plaintiffs are 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico – towns and cities that were hit hard by two powerful hurricanes in September 2017, Irma and Maria – which led to thousands of deaths, food shortages, widespread infrastructure damage and the longest blackout in US history.
Sims, the senior counsel, said: “What’s different about this [Rico] case is that we have their enterprise in writing – the decision by rival companies, their front groups, scientists and associations to act together to change public opinion regarding the use of their consumer products by telling people something that they knew was not true.”