May 19, 2016

Legal Scholars Send Gov. Brown Letter Supporting Efforts to Protect Consumers

Bill Would Ensure Climate Deception Claims May Be Tried on Their Merits

SACRAMENTO (May 19, 2016) – Twenty prominent legal scholars from around the country sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and California legislators today stating that the California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act is in the public interest because it would ensure that companies that misled consumers about climate science don’t avoid prosecution simply because the clock has run out. The bill, SB 1161, authored by State Sen. Ben Allen and sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, will likely come before the State Senate in the next several days. The letter signers are experts in constitutional law, environmental law, corporate law, and securities law from law schools around the country, including Harvard, Yale and several University of California law schools.

The bill would allow Unfair Competition Law (UCL) claims against companies that deceive consumers about climate science—which could have expired under the current statute of limitation because companies successfully hid the evidence of fraud—to be revived for a one time period of four years. A growing body of evidence indicates that major fossil fuel companies knew the risks and potentially catastrophic consequences of processing and burning their products for decades and even as early as the 1950s.

The letter cites many legal precedents for why holding companies accountable for their unfair, deceptive, misleading or fraudulent actions, practices or advertising is reasonable and constitutional, including:

  • The First Amendment does not protect a defendant from potential liability for false and misleading statements in a commercial context, or from liability for fraud when statements concern issues such as infringement upon human rights.  
  • SB 1161 does not expose commercial entities to new sources of liability, given existing federal securities laws. Commercial entities have long been on notice that their communications need to be accurate and made in good faith. 
  • SB 1161 ensures that fair trials on the merits can proceed to uphold the rights of California citizens for protection from unfair competition, rather than the statute of limitations subverting this right for claims that were not only undiscovered but likely undiscoverable until very recently.  Barring claims precisely because the truth was successfully concealed would reward that deceptive and fraudulent conduct.                                                                 

The letter concludes, “In summary, the Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act (SB 1161) serves the compelling public interest in bringing the truth to light regarding claims under the UCL for acts of unfair competition with respect to the scientific evidence of climate change, and ensures that claims for protecting California consumers and citizens can be tried on the merits.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.