Comer v. Murphy Oil USA

Case Name:                Comer v. Murphy Oil USA

Jurisdiction:               United States

Type of claim:            Lawsuit against private company under tort law

Summary of result:  Claim dismissed

Judgment final:          Yes

Court instances:

Court Type of Decision Summary of Decision

District Court of the Southern District of Mississippi (“District Court”)

Decision of 30 Aug 2007

[2007] S.D. Miss. 1:05-cv-00436

First instance Claim dismissed

United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (“Fifth Circuit Court”)

Opinion of 16 Oct 2009

[2009] 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir.)

Appeal decision Dismissal partially reversed

Fifth Circuit Court

Order of 26 Feb 2010

[2010] 598 F.3d 208 (5th Cir.)

Decision re granting hearing en banc[1] (order)


Hearing en banc granted.

Fifth Circuit Court

Order of 28 May 2010

[2010] 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir.)

Decision on rehearing of appeal (order) Appeal dismissed

Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”)

Order of 10 Jan 2011

[2011] 10 U.S. 294

Decision re request for a writ of mandamus seeking an order that would, in effect, overturn the Fifth Circuit’s dismissal of the appeal. [2]


Mandamus denied

District Court

Order of 20 March 2012

839 F. Supp. 2d 849 (S.D. Miss. 2012)

Decision re pursuing same case. Claim dismissed.

Fifth Circuit Court

Opinion of 14 May 2013

718 F.3d 460 (5th Cir. 2013)

Appeal decision. Appeal dismissed

Sources of claims: Common law – tort law


Comer et al v Murphy Oil USA et al., 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009)

This case involves claims for damages in relation to Hurricane Katrina. The plaintiffs first filed a claim in the District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi (“District Court”) in 2005. In 2007, the District Court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case on grounds that the claim was based on issues that were outside of the jurisdiction of the federal court and/or raised issues that were non-legal in nature. The plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court which, in 2009, partially reversed the 2007 District Court decision and held that the case should proceed to merits review. However, due to procedural issues, the case failed when it was re-heard by the Fifth Circuit Court in 2010.

The same plaintiffs attempted to bring the same case again in 2011. It was, however, dismissed by the District Court in 2012 and an appeal was dismissed by the Fifth Circuit Court in 2013.

Facts and claims by the parties


The plaintiffs in this case are residents and landowners along Mississippi Gulf Coast, who filed a class action against the defendants, Murphy Oil and other companies doing business in Mississippi. Plaintiffs’ claims included that the defendants’ operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries released greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contributed to global warming. This in turn caused sea levels to rise and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the plaintiffs’ private property, in addition to public property useful to them.

The plaintiffs seek damages to compensate their losses and punitive damages, which are intended to punish and deter the defendants’ conduct. The plaintiffs do not seek injunctive relief against the companies. Particularly, they seek damages for negligent conduct, trespass, private nuisance, unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy.

The defendants claim the plaintiffs lack standing to make these claims, as the matters raised are political and not within the jurisdiction of courts.

Claims of Plaintiffs

The plaintiffs’ claims can be divided into 2 categories. The first is private and public nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims (also known as ‘torts claims’). The basis for these claims is that there are causal linkages between greenhouse gas emissions, anthropogenic global warming, and damages to Plaintiffs’ properties resulting from land loss caused by climate impacts (i.e., rising sea levels, Hurricane Katrina). Sea level rises, which resulted from defendant’s activities, also caused public nuisance which interfered with use of public property (i.e., through beach erosion).

The second category includes unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy claims. The basis for these claims is that the defendants artificially inflated the price of petrochemicals and knowingly made false statements concerning the dangers of global warming.[3]

Counters by Defendants

Murphy Oil and other defendants counterargued that the plaintiffs lack standing because their claims are nonjusticiable, political questions best left in the hands of elected legislative bodies. They assert that the plaintiffs failed to show how the defendants’ activities proximately caused the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, so therefore, their claims fail the traceability requirement. To elaborate upon the ‘traceability’ point, the defendants argued that the linkages between the defendants’ activities (contributing greenhouse gas emissions) and injuries to the plaintiffs are too attenuated.[4]

Decision by District Court, 30 August 2007

The District Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case because it found that plaintiffs did not have standing and the claims were non-justiciable pursuant to the political question doctrine.

Decision by Fifth Circuit Court, 16 Oct 2009

There were two main issues before the Fifth Circuit Court. First, whether the plaintiffs have legal standing to assert their claims in court. Second, whether the plaintiffs’ claims are justiciable.


The Fifth Circuit Court held that the plaintiffs have standing to bring claims based on private and public nuisance, negligence, and trespass. Claims of unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation and civil conspiracy were dismissed.[5]

The matter of whether the alleged chain of causation meets the proximate cause requirement under Mississippi state common law was referred to the District Court. The District Court’s original judgment of plaintiffs lacking standing was reversed.[6]


To have standing, a plaintiff must demonstrate they meet the following three requirements. First, they have suffered an injury “in fact”. Second, the injury is “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s actions in question. Third, there is a likelihood of the injury being redressed by a favourable decision (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992)).

The Court found that the plaintiffs met the first and third constitutional requirements for having standing. The common law tort claims, in which the plaintiffs allege they sustained actual and concrete injury to their lands and property, can be redressed by the compensatory and punitive measures they seek.[7]

Although the defendants contested the plaintiffs’ standing under the second requirement, the Court found the plaintiffs met the second requirement as well.[8] The defendants argued that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate that their alleged harms were fairly traceable to the defendants’ actions. The Court found that at this preliminary stage, the requirement of traceability was not very strict, and it was sufficient that the plaintiffs had argued a chain of causation.[9] Further, the traceability requirement does not require proof of direct, proximate causation. Indirect causation can also suffice where the plaintiffs show a plausible connection between their injuries and the defendants’ actions.[10]

The Fifth Circuit Court found that plaintiffs’ first set of claims (re public and private nuisance) satisfied the traceability requirement because the plaintiffs’ claims can be fairly traced to the defendant’s contributions of emissions.[11]

However, the second set of claims (unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and civil conspiracy) did not meet the standing requirement. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants engaged in a false advertising campaign and wrongly dissuaded action on climate change, which led to a lack of government enforcement of environmental laws, thus enabling the defendants to increase their prices and profits. This set of claims failed on the grounds that generally available grievances on government (in)action and relief that do not tangibly benefit plaintiffs, but mainly the public at large, fails the prudential standing requirement.[12] Particularly, they do not identify a particularized injury that impacts plaintiff in an individual or personal way. The Court held that such matters were better left in the hands of legislative bodies rather than in judicial overreach.[13]


The Fifth Circuit Court found that the plaintiffs’ first set of claims (on negligence, trespass, and nuisance) were justiciable.[14] As a general rule, the justiciability requirement is fulfilled when an issue, case or controversy is constitutionally capable of being decided on by a federal court. The US Supreme Court has developed the so-called political questions doctrine, according to which certain categories of cases should be decided by the political branches, rather than the courts.

The matters of this case are justiciable as they are not questions that are exclusively committed by law to the discretion of legislative or executive branches. Thus, Courts can decide on them as common law tort claims.

Fifth Circuit Court en banc decision, 26 Feb 2010 and 28 May 2010

In Feb 2010, the Fifth Circuit Court granted the defendants’ petition to rehear the matter en banc (meaning: by the whole court).[15] This decision vacated the Fifth Circuit judgment of 16 Oct 2009. The intention was for the whole Court to rehear the issue en banc and adopt a new decision on the matter. However, due to procedural reasons, this did not happen. By the time of the rehearing, one of the judges had disqualified and was recused from hearing the matter. Because of this, the Court lost quorum and was not able to decide the appeal. It therefore dismissed the appeal, which means that the District Court’s initial decision to dismiss the case was reinstated.[16]

US Supreme Court decision, 10 Jan 2011

The plaintiffs filed a petition with the US Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, seeking an order that would, in effect, overturn the Fifth’s Circuit dismissal of the appeal. The Supreme Court rejected the plaintiff’s request without comment on 10 Jan 2010.[17]


In 2011, the plaintiffs refiled their claim in the District Court. One year later, the District Court granted a motion to dismiss the case, relying, among other things, on the doctrine of res judicata which says that a matter that has already been adjudicated on by a competent court may not be further pursued by the same parties.[18] In 2013, the plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, which affirmed the District Court’s decision on the basis of res judicata.[19]


[1] en banc: when all judges of a particular court hear a case.

[2] The petitioners were seeking an order directing the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to decide the appeal that was dismissed without a decision on May 28, 2010 by the Fifth Circuit Court. Mandamus is a judicial remedy that can take the form of an order from one court to a lower court to take some specific action.

[3] See Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 861.

[4] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 864.

[5] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 860, 880.

[6] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 880.

[7] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 863.

[8] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 864-865.

[9] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 864.

[10] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 864.

[11] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 866-867.

[12] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 868.

[13] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 869.

[14] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (opinion), at 870.

[15] Fifth Circuit Court en banc order (February 2010).

[16] Fifth Circuit Court decision, appeal rehearing (May 2010).

[17] Supreme Court decision.

[18] District Court judgment, at 868.

[19] Fifth Circuit Court appeal decision (2013), at 465, 469.