The Regional Court Stuttgart dismissed a climate-related claim brought by the German NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) against Mercedes-Benz AG on 13 September 2022. This is the first judgement in a series of climate-related lawsuits.
In autumn 2021, several individuals and representatives of DUH and Greenpeace filed lawsuits at various German courts against car manufacturers (Mercedes-Benz AG, Volkswagen AG, BMW AG) and Wintershall Dea (see our previous blog post). With their civil law-based claim, three representatives of DUH sought to prevent Mercedes-Benz from marketing internal combustion engines after 31 October 2030. Inspired by the ground-breaking verdict by the Hague District Court against Royal Dutch Shell, the claimants argued with a duty of care under German tort law to reduce CO2 emissions and not to exceed a certain CO2 budget allocated to the company. This duty of care was further charged with constitutional arguments taken from last year’s decision of the German Constitutional Court on the Federal Climate Protection Act. In its decision of 24 March 2021, the Constitutional Court had accepted that Germany only has a limited CO2 budget left (see our blog post on that decision). The more CO2 emitted now, the lower the future budget would be, and thus more drastic measures would be needed to reduce future emissions, which would amount to a violation of constitutional rights (e.g. freedom, property, health). According to the NGO, this dimension of the constitutional rights must be transferred into civil law as general provisions of civil law are to be interpreted in conformity with the constitution. Unlike the Dutch NGO against Shell, however, DUH failed with its arguments in the first instance at the Regional Court Stuttgart.
The decision does not come as a surprise. Already at the oral hearing on 21 June 2022, the court expressed clear doubts about the claim’s merits (see our previous blog post). What is a bit more surprising is the brevity of the judgement. It took the court just a few short paragraphs to declare the claim unfounded.
First, the court found that it cannot be established whether and to what extent the claimants’ rights could be impeded in the future if the production of internal combustion engines continues. In this respect, the claimants had argued that their rights would be affected by legislative measures that would restrict their freedom in the future. This was completely uncertain in the court’s view.
Second, the court ruled that the claimants’ request could not be based on the effective legal protection of the claimants’ constitutional rights. The court regarded the claimants’ demands to be contrary to the division of powers between the legislator and the judiciary. It is the legislature’s duty to provide the legal framework to prevent further global warming. Individuals could not be granted the right to correct legislative decisions perceived as inadequate through civil law instruments. Rather, an overall strategy by the federal legislator would be needed in order to meet the climate protection targets.
The court also declined to refer the case to the European Court of Justice. The claimants had suggested a reference for a preliminary ruling on whether Regulation (EU) 2019/631 of 17 April 2019 setting CO2 emission performance standards for new passenger cars is compatible with Article 6 (right to liberty) and Article 37 (protection of the environment) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Comment and Outlook
On the same day as the judgement was handed down, DUH announced it would appeal the decision. Any decision of the appellate court (Higher Regional Court Stuttgart) will most likely be further appealed to the Federal Court of Justice. Thus, only the decisions of higher courts will bring clarity to the fundamental question whether private individuals can use German civil law to impose specific emission targets on corporates.
The answer of the Regional Court Stuttgart to this question is fully in line with the decision of 24 March 2021 by the Constitutional Court on the Federal Climate Protection Act. The Constitutional Court emphasized that the principle of environmental protection enshrined in Article 20a of the German constitution is addressed to the legislator; it further pointed out that it is up to the legislator and not up to the courts to derive concrete limits to global warming or determine specific reduction targets from the German constitution.
The constitutional judges further clarified this position in another decision of 18 January 2022 in which they did not admit constitutional complaints regarding the regulation of greenhouse gas reduction pathways (or the lack thereof) by several federal states. A future impairment of constitutional rights could only be established if the legislator itself was bound by a roughly determinable CO2 emissions budget. Since there was no such budget for the federal states, the Constitutional Court denied a potential violation of constitutional rights by the federal states.
Nothing else can then apply to corporates. Only the state but not private individuals and companies are bound by constitutional rights. Moreover, there is no corresponding budget for the individual companies that would bind the legislator. Rather, the legislator needed to implement such a budget first. Precisely because of the lack of legal requirements, the reduction targets that shall be imposed on the car manufacturers under civil law are calculated differently in each case. This contradicts the principle of legal clarity as it would be left to the discretion of claimants and civil courts how the emission targets would be calculated and which companies and sectors would be affected.
The actions against the other car manufacturers are still pending. In the proceedings against BMW the oral hearing will take place on 15 November 2022 before the Munich Regional Court. On 9 September 2022 the Detmold Regional Court decided to schedule the next hearing for 3 February 2023. German courts will therefore continue to deal with the aspect of climate-related liability of the automotive industry in the years to come.