Environmental Law

Lawyer's RICO suit seeks to force fossil fuel companies to pay for hurricane damage

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Illinois lawyer Melissa “Missy” Sims has sued fossil fuel companies on behalf of 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico seeking damages for devastation caused by Hurricane Maria and other storms. Photo illustration by Elmarie Jara/ABA Journal/Shutterstock.

A small-town Illinois lawyer who once sued oil companies over contaminated land has turned her attention to climate change and the companies allegedly fueling the problem.

Now with Milberg law firm, Melissa “Missy” Sims has sued fossil fuel companies on behalf of 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico seeking damages for devastation caused by Hurricane Maria and other storms. She is seeking class action status in the lawsuit, which says hurricanes are becoming more intense because of climate change.

The defendants in Sims’ November 2022 suit include Exxon Mobil, the Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and BP, the New York Times reports. The suit stands out for two reasons, according to the New York Times.

The suit was the first to allege that the companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by misrepresenting the dangers of their carbon-based products. The suit was also the first to seek damages for a specific weather event.

Puerto Rico is unfortunately akin to the “eggshell plaintiff” referenced in tort law because of its location, the suit says.

“Tragically, Puerto Rico is an island in the notorious Hurricane Alley with warming waters and a rising sea that had no defense or warning that monster storms—worse than had ever occurred—would pummel its land in 2017.”

The suit alleges that oil and gas companies formed a “Global Climate Coalition” in 1989 that was used to advance a “marketing campaign of deception” that continues to this day.

Besides RICO, other causes of action include consumer fraud, antitrust violations, fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, failure to warn and products liability.

One of the companies sued, Royal Dutch Shell, gave this statement to the New York Times: “We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress.”

The New York Times described 54-year-old Sims as possibly “the most surprising legal figure to emerge as the world grapples with the devastating impacts of a warming planet. An Armani-and-Rolex wearing observant Catholic from a small Midwest town who talks to God as she mulls her complex legal cases, Ms. Sims is also a constant TikTok poster whose dog has more followers than some celebrities.”

According to the New York Times, Sims got her start practicing law by helping communities prosecute “people who wouldn’t clean up after their pets, residents who didn’t have their trailers on foundations and landowners who wouldn’t cut their weeds.”

She went on to represent the Illinois community of DePue in a suit claiming that Exxon Mobil and other owners of polluted land were littering. The village eventually reached a nearly $1 million settlement. Next, she sued Shell and ConocoPhillips for allegedly polluting groundwater in Roxana, Illinois. The two companies eventually settled for almost $5 million.

After joining Milberg, Sims traveled to Puerto Rico to help local governments suing companies for the opioid crisis. Hurricane Maria devastated the island months later. When Sims saw the aftermath, she said, the Holy Spirit moved her to sue.

“I believe the Holy Spirit is my co-counsel,” she told the New York Times. “He’s never steered me wrong.”

See also:

ABA Journal: “Lawyers are unleashing a flurry of lawsuits to step up the fight against climate change”

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