Justia Class Action Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Environmental Law
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The Baptistes filed suit on behalf of a class of homeowner-occupants and renters (about 8,400 households) claiming interference with the use and enjoyment of their homes and loss in property value caused by noxious odors and other air contaminants emanating from the 224-acre Bethlehem Landfill. The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit. While everyone in the community—including visitors, commuters, and residents—may suffer from having to breathe polluted air in public spaces, the Baptistes have identified cumulative harms that are unique to residents, such as the inability to use and enjoy their outdoor spaces. These injuries are above and beyond any injury to the public; the Baptistes sufficiently alleged a “particular damage” to sustain a private claim for public nuisance. They also stated a claim for private nuisance. Pennsylvania law does not reject a private nuisance claim on the ground that the property affected was too far from the source of the alleged nuisance. Nor does Pennsylvania law condition an individual’s right to recover private property damages on a nuisance theory on the size of the nuisance or the number of persons harmed, as opposed to the nature of the rights affected or the degree of the harm suffered. The question remains whether the Baptistes have sufficiently pleaded a cognizable injury to state an independent negligence claim. View "Baptiste v. Bethlehem Landfill Co." on Justia Law

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In 2008, plaintiffs filed a class action concerning 540 properties in Dayton’s McCook Field neighborhood, alleging that the groundwater is contaminated with carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, released by defendants’ automotive and dry cleaning facilities. The EPA designated the area as a Superfund site. Plaintiffs have access to municipal drinking water but the contaminated groundwater creates the risk of VOC vapor intrusion into buildings so that Plaintiffs may inhale carcinogenic and hazardous substances. A school was closed and demolished when vapor mitigation systems were unable to adequately contain the levels of harmful substances. After the suit was removed to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act, 28 U.S.C. 1332(d)(2) and consolidated with related actions, Plaintiffs sought Rule 23(b)(3) liability-only class certification for five of their 11 causes of action—private nuisance, negligence, negligence per se, strict liability, and unjust enrichment. Alternatively, they requested Rule 23(c)(4) certification of seven common issues. The court determined that although the proposed classes satisfied Rule 23(a)’s prerequisites, Ohio law regarding injury-in-fact and causation meant that plaintiffs could not meet Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement and denied certification of the proposed liability-only classes. The court then employed the “broad view” and certified seven issues for class treatment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The certified classes satisfy requirements of predominance and superiority. Each issue may be resolved with common proof and individualized inquiries do not outweigh common questions. Class treatment of the certified issues will not resolve liability entirely, but will materially advance the litigation. View "Martin v. Behr Dayton Thermal Products, LLC" on Justia Law

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Petitioner waived its challenge to the decision of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (UDEQ) to issue a “permit by rule” to U.S. Oil Sands Inc. for a bitumen-extraction project. Petitioner, which appeared before the Supreme Court for a second time to challenge the permit, failed to argue that UDEQ’s Executive Director erred in concluding that Living Rivers v. U.S. Oil Sands, Inc., 344 P.3d 568 (Living Rivers I), barred its requests for agency action. The Supreme Court affirmed the executive Director’s decision on the ground that Petitioner failed adequately to challenge an alternative ground for the Executive Director’s decision. View "Rivers v. Executive Director of Utah Department of Environmental Quality" on Justia Law

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The Third Circuit affirmed the approval of a settlement of an FRCP 23(b)(3) class action arising out of hexavalent chromium contamination in Jersey City, New Jersey. The class action was brought on behalf of property owners in several neighborhoods whose homes were allegedly contaminated by by-products disposed of at chromium chemical manufacturing plants, owned and operated by the predecessors of Honeywell and PPG. Plaintiffs asserted common law tort claims and civil conspiracy claims for depreciation of their property values due to the alleged contamination, but not claims for harm other than economic loss to property value, such as personal injury or medical monitoring claims. The district court certified a settlement-only class as to the claims against Honeywell and approved a $10,017,000 settlement fund, which included an award of costs and attorneys’ fees for plaintiffs’ counsel. Overruling an objection by a member of the Honeywell settlement class, the Third Circuit concluded that the class certification requirements of FRCP 23(a) and (b)(3) are satisfied, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in approving the settlement under FRCP 23(e) and the award of attorneys’ fees under FRCP 23(h). The court remanded for reconsideration of the award of costs under Rule 23(h). View "Halley v. Honeywell International Inc" on Justia Law

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Diageo distills and ages whiskey in Louisville, resulting in tons of ethanol emissions. Ethanol vapor wafts onto nearby property where the ethanol combines with condensation to propagate whiskey fungus. Ethanol emissions are regulated under the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7401. Plaintiffs complained to the air pollution control district, which issued a Notice of Violation, finding that Diageo caused and allowed the emission of an air pollutant which crossed its property line causing an injury and nuisance to nearby neighborhoods and the public. Diageo disputed that its operations violated any district regulation. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint, seeking damages for negligence, nuisance, and trespass, and an injunction. The district court concluded that state common law tort claims were not preempted by the Clean Air Act;” dismissed plaintiffs’ negligence claim on the ground that plaintiffs had not pled facts sufficient to establish that Diageo owed them a duty of care, or that Diageo had breached that duty; and declined to dismiss the remaining causes of action, concluding that plaintiffs had alleged facts sufficient to establish nuisance and trespass. On interlocutory appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, based on the Act’s text, the Act’s structure and history, and relevant Supreme Court precedents. View "Merrick v. Diageo Americas Supply, Inc." on Justia Law

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Phillips owns an underground petroleum pipeline, built in 1930. A 1963 report stated that 100 barrels of leaded gasoline had leaked beneath West Alton, Missouri, and not been recovered. The leak was repaired. In 2002 a West Alton resident noticed a petroleum odor in his home. He contacted Phillips, which investigated. West Alton has no municipal water. Testing on the owner’s well disclosed benzene, a gasoline additive and carcinogen, at three times allowable limits. Phillips purchased the property, and two nearby homes and, with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), established a remediation plan. In 2006 Phillips demolished the homes, removed 4000 cubic yards of soil, and set up wells to monitor for chemicals of concern (COCs). Phillips volunteered to provide precautionary bottled water to 50 residents near the site. Sampling of other wells had not shown COCs above allowable limits. MDNR requested that Phillips test the wells of each family receiving bottled water before ending its water supply program. Phillips chose instead to continue distributing bottled water. Most of the recipients are within 0.25 miles of the contamination site. In 2011 nearby landowners sued, alleging nuisance, on the theory that possible pockets of contamination still exist. The Eighth Circuit reversed class certification, noting the absence of evidence showing class members were commonly affected by contamination, View "Smith v. ConocoPhillips Pipe Line Co." on Justia Law

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In 2013, Plaintiffs filed an action against the Boeing Company and Landau Associates (Landau) in a Washington state court alleging that from the 1960s to the present years Boeing released toxins into the groundwater around its facility in Auburn, Washington and that for over a decade Landau, Boeing’s environmental-remediation contractor, had been negligent in its investigation and remediation of the pollution. Based on these allegations, Plaintiffs asserted state law claims of negligence, nuisance, and trespass. Boeing removed the action to a federal district court based on diversity jurisdiction and the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). The district court remanded the case to state court, concluding (1) contrary to Boeing’s allegations, Landau was not fraudulently joined, and thus there was not complete diversity; and (2) Plaintiffs’ action came within the local single event exception to CAFA federal jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit vacated and remanded, holding (1) the district court correctly determined that Boeing failed to show that Landau was fraudulently joined; but (2) Plaintiffs’ action does not come within the local single event exception to CAFA, and therefore, the district court has federal jurisdiction under CAFA. Remanded. View "Allen v. Boeing Co." on Justia Law

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About 150 property owners in a village near the Mississippi River claim that defendants’ refinery leaked benzene and other contaminants into the groundwater. They sued, alleging nuisance and related torts. The district court certified the class. The Seventh Circuit reversed. The court first rejected an argument that most class members had suffered no injury. How many class members have a valid claim is determined after certification. Predominance of issues common to all class members, like other certification requirements, goes to the efficiency of a class action as an alternative to individual suits. In this case, the alleged contamination occurred over a 90‐year period and involved different levels of contamination, caused by different polluters. Not every class member has experienced the same diminution in property value even if everyone had the same level of contamination. Plaintiff’s hydrogeologist, intended to measure contamination by the benzene levels in the groundwater beneath the plaintiffs’ properties, even though their water does not come from groundwater, but from an uncontaminated aquifer. It cannot be assumed that a decline in the value of property in the village is the result of proximity to a refinery. The district judge did not explore any of these issues, but treated predominance as a pleading requirement. View "Shell Oil Co. v. Parko" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit against GenOn, on behalf of a putative class of at least 1,500 individuals who own or inhabit residential property within one mile of GenOn’s 570-megawatt coal-fired electrical generation facility in Springdale, Pennsylvania. The complaint asserted state tort law claims, based on ash and contaminants settling on plaintiffs’ property. The district court dismissed, finding that because the plant was subject to comprehensive regulation under the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. 7401, it owed no extra duty to the members of the class under state tort law. The Third Circuit reversed, holding that the plain language of the Clean Air Act and controlling Supreme Court precedent indicate that state common law actions are not preempted. View "Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, Genon Power Midwest, L.P." on Justia Law

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This case concerned a class action filed against defendants for contamination of plaintiffs' properties by gasoline and a gasoline additive (the Koch action). Former Koch class members subsequently filed a new class action (the Ackerman action). On appeal, defendants challenged the district court's order abstaining from exercising jurisdiction under the Colorado River doctrine. The court held that 28 U.S.C. 1446(d) affected only the jurisdiction of the state court only with regard to the case actually removed to federal court; because Koch was not removed, the state court maintained jurisdiction over it, and the amendment to the complaint in that case was not void ab initio; and the district court was correct to consider the amended Koch complaint in determining whether the Koch and Ackerman actions were parallel, and the district court did not abuse its discretion when concluding that exceptional circumstances warranted abstention in favor of the pending Koch action. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Ackerman v. ExxonMobil Corp." on Justia Law