Insurance company sues Chicago for climate change

Want to see how climate change is already hitting your wallet?

Follow the money.

Farmers Insurance is suing the city of Chicago and nearly 200 Chicago area communities for allegedly failing to adequately prepare for the impacts of climate change and an increase in extreme weather.

The action may be the first of its kind. It also says a lot about how the insurance industry and other businesses are already feeling the financial effects of climate change, in spite of the continued mantra from climate change deniers that climate changes are either not happening or insignificant.

1520 image_asset_346
US Army Corps of Engineers

Here's a snippet from CBS News.

Farmers Insurance is suing the city of Chicago and about 200 local municipalities for allegedly failing to adequately prepare for the impact of climate change, in what's described as the first-of-its-kind legal argument.

At the heart of the class-action lawsuits is a storm that hit the Chicago area on April 17, 2013, described by CBS station WBBM as so bad that some neighborhoods were only navigable by boat. The storm also shut down major expressways and flooded hundreds of basements and streets.

While some might cite the storm as simply bad luck for Chicago-area towns, Farmers Insurance is claiming that the towns had the time and opportunity to prepare their storm-water and sewer systems, but failed to "implement reasonable pre-storm practices."

While many already-strapped municipalities grapple with the costs and impact of climate change, the lawsuit may indicate a strategy from insurers to mitigate payouts, given that claims related to worsening weather events are likely to rise.

Here's another take on the story from The Washington Post.

“During the past 40 years, climate change in Cook County has caused rains to be of greater volume, greater intensity and greater duration than pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced,” a fact that local governments were well aware of, a suit filed in Cook County, Ill., alleges, citing a climate change action plan adopted in 2008 that acknowledges the link between climate change and increased rainfall.

The suits also say the localities knew their drainage systems weren't up to snuff because the regional water management authority had published plans in 2011 detailing various defects.

Knowing the risks, they argue, local governments should have increased their storm water storage capacity. Furthermore, the suits allege they were negligent in failing to take temporary measures in the days before the storm, such as deploying water-inflatable property protection systems to mitigate damage.

Here's another interesting take from EE Publishing.

Similarly, the lawsuit by Farmers uses the climate assertions by local officials to show that they knew about the risks of a warmer and wetter atmosphere but didn't do enough to avoid damage. The suit points to the Chicago Climate Action Plan as evidence that the city is aware of the dangers.

"The defendant knew or should have known that climate change in Cook County has resulted in greater rain fall [sic] volume, greater rainfall intensity and greater rainfall duration than pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced, resulting in greater stormwater runoff," the lawsuit says.

Farmers claims that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, an agency that operates the region's stormwater system, and dozens of municipalities should have drained the network of tunnels before the storm.

The sprawling system includes a massive tunnel project begun in 1968 to capture 20 billion gallons of water. The water reclamation agency notes that the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, or TARP, is meant to handle increased runoff.

"It is the largest system of its kind," said Allison Fore, a spokeswoman for the agency. She declined to discuss the lawsuit.

A Farmers spokesman described the damage as "completely preventable" and said the court case is meant to "prevent it from happening again."

"Farmers has taken what we believe is the necessary action to recover payments made on behalf of our customers," said Luis Sahagun, the company spokesman.

Legal experts say the suit is the first of its kind, and if it's successful it could have far-reaching implications in the way that municipalities approach climate change.

The ramifications from this kind of legal action may be huge. Think your taxes are high now? How about a "Climate Change Premium" on you local tax bill in the (near?) future to pay off potential lawsuits or fund increased storm water drainage projects.

Stay tuned.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.