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
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
"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
But the city's foresight may have made it a target, said Verchick,
since Farmers cites the document as evidence officials were aware of
[to top of second column]
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
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 Agency.
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 Douglas Royalty)
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