Judge dismisses youth climate change lawsuit filed by Eugene law firm

RICHMOND, Va. — A Virginia judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of 13 youths who claim state authorization of fossil fuel projects is exacerbating climate change and violating their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit by Our Children’s Trust, a Eugene-based nonprofit public interest law firm, asked the court to strike portions of the Virginia Gas and Oil Act unconstitutional. It also seeks to find that state reliance and promotion of fossil fuels violates the rights of the plaintiffs, ages 10 to 19.

But Richmond Circuit Court Judge Clarence Jenkins Jr. granted the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling the suit was barred by sovereign immunity. It’s a legal doctrine that says a state cannot be sued without its consent.

The state argued that sovereign immunity barred the plaintiffs’ claims because they sought to prevent the state from issuing permits for fossil fuel infrastructure and interfere with government functions. The judge did not rule on the merits of the complainants’ constitutional claims.

The lawsuit is one of five brought by Our Children’s Trust in states across the country. Trials in Hawaii and Utah are in their early stages, while a trial in Montana is expected to go to trial next year.

A federal lawsuit filed in Eugene in 2015, Juliana v. United States, remains in litigation after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiffs last year. The plaintiffs, who were between the ages of 11 and 22 when the lawsuit was first filed, have since asked to file a narrower amended complaint and are awaiting a decision.

The plaintiffs, several of whom were from Eugene and other Oregon towns, argued that the federal government violated their rights by allowing the use of fossil fuels. Their argument is that the government was aware that fossil fuel consumption was contributing to the kind of climate change that will negatively impact the plaintiffs’ future.

In the Virginia case, Jenkins dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled in the same court. Their attorney, Nathan Bellinger, said they would appeal the decision to the state Court of Appeals.

Ten of the plaintiffs – accompanied by their parents – listened in court as Bellinger said the state was knowingly contributing to the climate crisis by continuing to rely on fossil fuels as primary energy sources and polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions. He asked the judge to allow the case to go to trial.

The lawsuit alleges that climate change contributed to the health problems faced by the plaintiffs, including asthma and heat exhaustion. Four of the plaintiffs fell ill after being bitten by ticks, a population that has increased due to climate change, Bellinger said.

He also claims that Virginia violated the public trust doctrine, which states that the state has a duty to hold certain natural resources in trust.

“These brave young people in Virginia … are looking to justice to protect their basic rights,” Bellinger said in court.

Bellinger said the Virginia lawsuit is the first to omit a request for an injunction to compel the state to take certain action or submit a remedial plan. Instead, he only asked for a statement that continuing to permit fossil fuel projects violated plaintiffs’ rights.

But state attorneys argued that the plaintiffs were trying to usurp the role of the state legislature and impose their preferred energy and environmental policies on the state.

“Put simply, this action belongs two blocks from the General Assembly and not in this court,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sanford.

After the hearing, several of the plaintiffs spoke at a press conference where they held a large banner proclaiming “Climate justice in our courts NOW!”

An 18-year-old identified in the lawsuit as “Layla H.” says she’s been through everything from heat exhaustion to flooding due to climate change. The lawsuit says “an extreme rainfall event” in 2018 flooded the basement of her family’s home, causing water damage and mold growth that cost around $17,000 to repair.

She said she was tired of inaction from heads of state.

“Every alarm bell has been rung, and yet, nothing,” she said. “We won’t wait any longer to do what needs to be done.”

The Register-Guard reported that Adam Duvernay contributed to this article.

Teresa H. Sadler