In the face of burgeoning nuisance litigation over climate change and pollution suits seeking billions of dollars in damages, some law firms' environmental practices stood out by helping major corporations toss cases brought by federal regulators, state governments and conservation groups, earning them a spot among Law360's Environmental Groups Of 2010.
The Law360 Groups of the Year series honors firms that stood out in 2010. Each of the winners played a role in the matters that made headlines and changed the legal landscape in the past year.
Law360's Environmental Groups of 2010 are Hunton & Williams LLP, Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, King & Spalding LLP and Sidley Austin LLP.
In mid-November, Law360 invited nominations from more than 300 law firms and received 22 submissions for environmental groups of the year. A committee of four editors chose the top five based on how they dealt with the most significant and complex environmental matters in 2010.
Some of the winning firms handled climate change cases over companies' greenhouse gas emissions. Other groups helped companies fend off trespass and nuisance claims in pollution litigation.
One firm won a unanimous reversal of a $1 billion class action judgment against clients Dow Chemical Co. and the former Rockwell International Corp. in a case accusing the companies of releasing plutonium particles onto property near the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Colorado.
In early September, the firm convinced a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that the more than 12,000 class action plaintiffs who owned property near the now-defunct plant northwest of Denver were not entitled to a payout unless they could prove their property was actually damaged by the plutonium particles.
Another one of the winners had a major triumph in late July, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a ruling that would have required the Tennessee Valley Authority to spend over $1 billion to install emissions controls at four coal-fired power plants in Alabama and Tennessee.
In that widely watched case, the appellate court rejected North Carolina's public nuisance claims against the utility, pointing out that the plants had the necessary state permits and abided by the Clean Air Act.
A different firm guided Duke Energy Corp. to victory in October after the federal government sued one of the company's units for making modifications to a coal-fired electric power plant in Indiana without obtaining a permit. The firm persuaded the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to toss a jury verdict finding that the renovations to the Cinergy Corp. plant were likely to increase the plant's annual emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which would have required a permit.
Beyond overturning the verdict, the appeals court also found that the trial court had erred in admitting some of the government's expert witness testimony and instructed the lower court to enter judgment for the Duke unit in the case.
One of the other winners demonstrated its prowess won a major jury verdict in a drinking water contamination suit against Shell Oil Co. in California. After a four-month trial in California state court, a jury rejected the City of Redlands' bid for $46 million in damages based on allegations that Shell had contaminated its drinking water with 1,2,3- trichloropropane.
Several of the firms represent utilities such as American Electric Power Co. Inc., Duke Power Co. and Xcel Energy Inc. in a dispute over whether states, conservation groups and private citizens have standing to bring climate change public nuisance lawsuits against large emitters of greenhouse gases. The firms helped convince the U.S. Supreme Court in December to reconsider a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ruled that several sates and land trusts could sue the utilities in an effort to slash their carbon dioxide emissions.
These summaries offer only a handful of the accomplishments that set these environmental practices apart from their peers. In the next week, Law360 will profile the five winners.
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