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Lawyer crafts ingenious legal gambit to make Big Oil companies pay for natural disaster damages: 'We just need to prove it'

This is the first case of its kind to use this creative strategy.

Missy Sims, Mission to bring the dirty energy industry to justice

Photo Credit: iStock

Missy Sims is on a mission to bring the dirty energy industry to justice after the warming climate triggered devastating severe weather events. The New York Times chronicled the attorney's quest to build a class-action suit against industry giants on behalf of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Following years of action against companies polluting towns in her home state of Illinois, Sims joined the Milberg law firm. The class action firm brought her to Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria struck. After witnessing the devastating aftermath, Sims filed a lawsuit in November 2022 targeting Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and other industry players. 

Sims' legal strategy relied on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The lawsuit claimed that by downplaying the effects of dirty energy, such as rising temperatures and increasingly severe weather events, these companies knowingly misled the public about the consequences of their actions. 

It's the first case of its kind to use this creative strategy, which is usually reserved for prosecuting gangs and other organized crime. Industry leaders, environmental groups, lawyers, and politicians are closely watching this ground-breaking lawsuit. 

The case is also the first to request damages from a specific weather event intensified by rising temperatures, noting the loss of life and over $100 billion in destruction.

If these companies are found liable, the potential damages could exceed hundreds of billions of dollars. Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said that's why companies are "afraid" of these cases. 

"If they have to pay for the damages they caused, the costs get out of control really fast," he continued

With previous wins against industry giants on behalf of towns sickened and polluted by these companies, Sims believes she's holding them accountable. 

"This bomb that went off here was climate change related," she said. "We just need to prove it."

Big names in the industry have known the environmental consequences of coal, oil, and gas for decades, even mentioning violent storms specifically in a 1998 memo. Despite this knowledge, the industry concealed the information from the public, sowing doubt through lobbying and marketing tactics. 

If the case succeeds, impacted cities around Puerto Rico will have stronger ammunition against the companies that have endangered their way of life. By early 2024, we should know whether this case can clear enough legal hurdles to move forward.

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