Class Action Certification in Toxic Pollution Cases: It’s Not Whether You Will Win or Lose, but How You Will Play the Game – Price v. Martin

A recent ruling out of Louisiana makes clear that in determining whether a group of plaintiffs in a toxic contamination case should be permitted to bring their claims as a class action, the question is not whether the plaintiffs can ultimately win the case, but whether they’ve simply met the basic requirements for class certification.

Price v. Martin, Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court’s certification of the plaintiff class in an action alleging that the defendants – local railroad tie manufacturers – contaminated the property surrounding their operation, finding that the plaintiffs met the certification requirements regardless of the likelihood of their success on the merits of their claims.

The plaintiffs are persons residing in Alexandria, Louisiana, near the Dura-Wood Treating Company facility, owned by defendants at various times over a 66-year period. They claim that Dura-Wood’s creosote-treated railroad tie operation contaminated soil, sediments, groundwater and buildings in the surrounding area, damaging the plaintiffs’ property. Following a flurry of motions, the trial court granted certification of the plaintiffs’ class action, allowing representative parties to sue on behalf of roughly 4,700 landowners in the allegedly contaminated area. The appeals court upheld the decision, finding that “[t]he trial court applied the correct legal standard in deciding to certify this class.”
The court quoted the state Supreme Court’s decision in Dukes v. Union Pacific R.R. Co. in describing the nature of class action lawsuits in Louisiana:

A class action is a nontraditional litigation procedure which permits a representative with typical claims to sue or defend on behalf of, and stand in judgment for, a class of similarly situated persons when the question is one of common interest to persons so numerous as to make it impracticable to bring them all before the court. Ford v. Murphy Oil U.S.A., Inc., 96-2913 (La. 9/9/97), 703 So.2d 542, 544. The purpose and intent of class action procedure is to adjudicate and obtain res judicata effect on all common issues applicable not only to persons who bring the action, but to all others who are “similarly situated.” Id.

The court further determined that the plaintiffs satisfied Louisiana’s numerosity, commonality, typicality, adequacy and class definition requirements for certification. Although the facility at issue had three owners who engaged in varying operations using different chemicals over the 66-year period during which the contamination allegedly took place, the court held that “one factual issue is common to the potential class—whether defendants’ off-site emissions caused property damage to the residences in the area surrounding the plant. This issue will not be resolved by examining individual residences in the area. Rather, the elevated toxin levels must be shown on an area-wide basis as emanating from the defendants’ facility.”

That the plaintiffs were allowed to proceed as a class does not mean, however, that their claims will ultimately be successful. “This finding does not ensure success on the merits, but merely indicates that the class action procedural device is appropriate,” the court noted.

The dumping of toxic chemicals is believed to cause a broad range of health and medical problems. The Chicago and Joliet class action attorneys at Lubin Austermuehle represent plaintiffs in dumping and contamination class action litigation at state and federal levels. To speak with a dumping and contamination lawyer at our firm, contact our law office in Oakbrook Terrace or Chicago, Illinois by calling 630-333-0333 or (630) 333-0333. You may also contact us by e-mail.

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